Ever since Jane Foster had found a way to get Thor back to Earth, Maria Hill had been on the warpath. Natasha tried to take the easiest route and simply avoid her, but cat-and-mouse games between SHIELD agents could only last for so long, and Maria finally headed her off coming out of the coffee room on the third day.
“Hey, Romanov,” she asked. “When was the last time you saw Jane Foster?”
Technically, the last time Natasha had seen Foster the physicist had been deeply engaged in a drunken screaming match with Stark on scientific ethics. But that had been three nights ago, and Natasha had left before she could see if one would kill the other.
“At the impromptu welcome-back party Stark threw for Thor when the two of them crashed the Tower,” she replied, “but I think she’s gone back to New Mexico for now.”
“You’ve told her that since she took it upon herself to Thor back to Earth he’s her responsibility, right? At least as to his living situation, because I swear to God, I am not letting a lighting god wreak havoc on my headquarters after everything else we’ve had to deal with…”
“Relax, Hill, I think he’s staying in the Tower,” Natasha said, “Stark’s had a floor plan mapped out for him for over a month. Though, I think he might not be so keen on the idea now. Thor smashed Mjolnir through the ceilings of twelve floors that first night back. ”
Maria snorted. “How much did Potts have to shell out for a repair crew on that one?”
“About what you’d expect,” Natasha replied. “Though, given who else lives in that building I imagine she has some sort of contingency fund set aside for these kinds of things now.”
Hill shook her head.
“I have to say, even after everything that happened with the Tesseract, I didn’t expect them all to get so buddy-buddy,” she said, “that’s everyone but you living there now, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not like any of them had anywhere else to go,” Natasha said, “Stark’s R&D is the only thing that could have kept Banner from going back into hiding, Rogers doesn’t know anyone else, and Barton…Barton needed a change of pace, after what Loki put him through.”
Maria eyed her shrewdly. “You’re still here, though.”
Natasha’s mouth twitched at the unasked question.
“I like where I am,” she said, “Don’t see the need to move. And it’s not like I’m going to be tied to this detail forever.”
“Well, you’re right enough on that score,” Maria said, “Fury’s got a separate mission for you, after you finish up whatever team training Captain America’s got going on with you guys today. Wants you down to talk to him tomorrow morning.”
“Did he say what it was about?”
Maria shook her head. “You didn’t hear any of this from me. I think he wants to be the one to tell you himself.”
Natasha sighed. Should have expected that.
As she rode on the subway towards Grand Central, Natasha thought more on what Maria had said. It was true that Midtown had made them into a team, the six of them. They were something more than they had been, but still Clint’s words kept floating through her mind, from that first day after he’d come back:
“You’re a spy, not a soldier.”
At the time, that hadn’t mattered at all, but Clint was right. There was a difference between being a spy and a soldier, between working alone in the shadows and blasting into the fray with the likes of Captain America. And while Natasha was more than competent at both, she knew she belonged to the former category. Whatever they all had now, it wasn’t something Natasha was going to get used to being a part of easily. Not right away. And it certainly didn’t require her moving into Stark Tower.
Yes, she came over for team training, because Fury wanted her to, and because believe it or not she actually liked and respected the lot of them. And she stayed for dinner, because Banner had actually learned a thing or two about cooking during his time abroad. And she stayed for the twice-a-week movie nights, because watching Steve watch the classics was some of the best entertainment she’d had in years.
But she always went home at the end of the night. And it didn’t bother her, because solitude had been a part of her life for so long that it was second nature. It was where she was most comfortable, and it would take a lot more than an alien invasion to make her change her ways.
Still, she knew that it bothered the rest of them, and sure enough, it was that night that Stark finally cornered her as the movie finished and she got ready to leave.
“What’s with the Ice Princess act you’ve got goin’, huh? If any of us would have stayed away I’d have thought it’d be Barton, or Captain Tightpants over there,” he jerked his head towards Steve, who was still staring at the rolling credits of Psycho with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “I think Rogers is more impressed by the fancy tech you’ve got here than I am, Stark. I’ve been around this century longer than he has. Flatscreen TVs don’t do much for me.”
She slipped quickly past him before he got a chance to respond. She didn’t owe an answer to anyone—and certainly not to Tony Stark.
It would be good to have this new mission from Fury, though. It would give her a chance to get away for awhile. The chance, however temporary, for things to be something approaching normal.
Normal for her, that is.
In some ways, Lin Beifong wondered why it had taken this long before she got her ass hauled before the New York City Chief of Police. And an army general, to boot.
She had joined the force in her more idealistic youth because she’d wanted to help people and keep her city safe. And she’d believed, she’d really believed, that whatever problems the NYPD had—and oh, were there problems—working within the law was going to be the most effective way of doing that.
And in many respects, she hadn’t been proven wrong. She was a good cop, she knew that. She got her shit done, no matter what it took. Unless, of course, it took obvious use of earth or metalbending, in which case she had to be very careful to make sure that her tracks were covered.
It wasn’t that she was ashamed of her powers, far from it. But she was practical. She knew what happened to people who were different. She saw the type of attention that Tony Stark had garnered as Iron Man. Questions of “vigilante justice” and demands to hand things over to the government. She didn’t need the celebrity, or the notoriety, that would inevitably come with her abilities. She just wanted to do her job.
So she’d been good, she’d toed the line, keeping her metalbending largely to herself and rising through the ranks rapidly enough on her other skills. By the time she’d transferred to the 17th Precinct, she’d gotten used to leaving her metalbending on the backburner, using it only when she was sure it would escape the notice of her subordinates.
But when the sky opened up over Midtown six weeks ago, when flying monsters and giant killer whaleships descended on her city, Lin had held nothing back. Turned out metalbending was remarkably useful in keeping the creatures restrained long enough to get shot down.
But there went any subtlety she’d tried to gain over the last fifteen years.
She steeled herself as she opened the door. Her latest idea for strategy—not the best, but what she was going to have to deal with—was to break in and make a case for herself before he even got a chance to say anything.
“Sir, if this is about what happened in Midtown—“
“It is, Lieutenant Beifong, but not in the way you might think,” the commissioner gave her a resigned and all-too-knowing look. “This is General Ross.” The two of them shook hands. “Please, sit down,” he continued, “The general and I simply have a couple of questions for you. And an assignment, if you’re interested.”
Lin raised an eyebrow. With both the chief of police and a high-ranking general involved, it sounded like she’d be taking this assignment whether she was interested or not.
General Ross pulled out a USB drive and slid it across the table towards her. “Someone caught video footage of your fight against the Chitauri in Midtown. It’s…quite impressive, to say the least.”
“How long have you had this ability, Lieutenant Beifong? And what…exactly does it entail?”
She was screwed one way or the other, she figured. She might as well go down blazing in all-out honesty.
“I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, General,” she said, “I’ve been told it runs in the family. And it’s not just metal…my mother calls it ‘earthbending.’ And since metal technically comes from the earth…that particular side of it is much more useful to me here in the city.”
“And yet you’ve been on the police force for fifteen years, without this coming to the noted attention of your superiors?”
“Yes,” Lin replied, “For the most part.” Obviously it had been difficult to keep her various partners in the dark about it, but there was a vast difference between one person knowing and the whole squad knowing.
“And why keep it hidden? Particularly since it seems as though you could go against the Iron Man himself, with skills such as these?”
Lin snorted to herself. One of her exes had suggested that to her once, when he was very, very drunk and raging against the fact that Stark hadn’t turned over the suit to the government like any other good citizen would. Her answer to him was the same one she gave Ross now.
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that openly challenging Tony Stark is the brightest idea the NYPD’s ever had. And I’ve seen what happens to people when they’re revealed to have special abilities” she continued. “It…complicates things. I just wanted to do my job.”
The army general leaned back, considering her. “How much do you know about SHIELD, Lieutenant Beifong?”
“Not much,” she replied, “Enough. They were the ones who spearheaded the fight against the invasion, right? Enough security clearance and leverage to do and get what they want even more than the army does?”
“Beifong,” the chief said warningly.
“No, no, it’s quite alright, Commissioner,” Ross interrupted smoothly, “And she’s correct enough on that point.”
He turned back to her. “We have concerns about SHIELD, Beifong. Multiple growing, pressing concerns. Particularly in the light of their actions last month, and the amount of leeway they seem to grant these self-named ‘Avengers.’”
“Concerns? I thought the Avengers pretty instrumental in saving the city, General.”
“They certainly , but also contributed quite greatly to the destruction, particularly in the case of the lightning god and the creature known as the Hulk. And this time the outcome was worth the destruction, but what about the next crisis? I’m sure you’ll remember well what happened the last time the Hulk made an appearance in New York.”
Lin grimaced. That she did, indeed. She had a couple of friends who’d been in Harlem that night, and it had given them nightmares for months afterward.
“These Avengers...are a collection of individuals who possess very unique, powerful abilities. Not so unlike yourself.”
He gave her a look then that made her skin crawl. Like she was a specimen to be dissected in a lab. She glared back at him, and the look passed.
“The difference between you and them, however, is that you can control your abilities. Indeed, your record clearly shows that you have exhibited an astonishing amount of control. You play by the rules, Lieutenant Beifong. These ‘Avengers’ have hardly heard the term. And considering that one of their number has the potential to quite literally tear New York apart, this is not a situation that is acceptable, either with the NYPD or with the army.”
He sighed, “Our problem is that the status and situation regarding the Avengers is being very closely guarded by SHIELD. Indeed, Director Fury is acting almost pathetically maternal towards them all. And, as you so eloquently alluded to, we unfortunately don’t have much authority over them.”
“So…where exactly do I come in on this? Sir?” She didn’t think she liked where this was going. Not one bit.
“If we could get someone to infiltrate SHIELD’s ranks, someone to observe from the inside, we’d be able to determine if the situation is as dangerous and volatile as we think. And that’s where you come in. We need an agent whose abilities will get them close to the Avengers. Closer than nearly anyone else could get. And who better than a newly-discovered superhero?”
“I’d be careful how you use that word, General,” Lin snapped, “I’m hardly a hero. And if all of your assumptions about the Avengers are correct, neither are they.”
“No, of course not,” Ross conceded, “Poor choice of words. But the offer still stands, Lieutenant. Get close to SHIELD. Find out if they need to be regulated or contained. Particularly with regards to the Hulk.”
“And what happens if I determine that the situation warrants that?” Lin asked.
“You call us, we call the government, and we take care of things from there,” Ross said. “All we want is to get evaluate SHIELD’s so-called ‘wisdom’ in giving these people free reign. And, if we’re going to get technical about it, the research Dr. Banner conducted is still property of the U.S. Army. We’d like to know if we’ve made the right decision in keeping the…results of that research permanently rented out.”
Lin said nothing, but leaned back in her chair, taking care not to let any of her thoughts show on her face.
After a long pause, Ross stood and walked toward the door. “Think about it, Lieutenant,” he said as he left, “I’ll be back for your answer tomorrow.”
Lin turned back to the Commissioner as the door closed. “I’m assuming you think that I should go along with this plan?”
“One doesn’t exactly say no to the U.S. Army, Beifong,” he sighed, “and he’s got a point. We’ve got a half-dozen men and women with superpowers running amok in New York City. Do you really think that’s going to add to the stability of this town?”
Lin sighed. She knew that he was right. And it was technically observation, nothing more. Still…
“You’ve told him that I’ve never done the undercover thing before, right?”
The Commissioner scowled. “I have. But he remains convinced that only someone with your abilities stands a chance of actually getting close enough to them to properly assess the situation. And odds are, he’s right.”
He pointed a finger at Lin. “And clearly you’ve gotten some practice at lying over the years, so it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a halfway decent cover story for why you’re defecting from the NYPD to SHIELD. But make sure you run it by Ross before you do anything else.”
Lin forced herself to not roll her eyes. Yeah, this whole detail was going to be great. Sensing that she was dismissed, she rose and headed towards the door.
"And, Beifong?" She stopped and turned.
“If I were you, I’d start getting used to the whole ‘superhero’ thing,” he said. “However this turns out, you’re way too far gone for anything else.”
Natasha tried to make it a habit of not objecting to missions she was given. A job was a job, after all, and she wanted to save her arguments with Fury for the times that actually mattered. This time, though…
“You want me to what?”
“Train a new agent,” Fury repeated, in a tone of infinite patience. “We’ve got someone who’s just come in from the NYPD. She’s more than capable, but she needs to be brought up to speed on how things in S.H.I.E.L.D. actually work.”
“A babysitter.” She was all ice now. Calm, cold, collected, and as much pointed displeasure as she could possibly muster. “You want me. To be a babysitter.”
“You wanted time away,” Fury shot back, “and this new agent is…a special case. I need someone who can be more than a match for her. And once you look at her file, you’ll see that there aren’t many who fit that profile.”
He slid the file toward her, which she caught and opened in one smooth motion. Not many who could be a match for her, please…oh. Oh. Fury could actually have a point there. She looked back up at him.
“Where did she get her training from? Is she one of Xavier’s old students?”
“We couldn’t find a record on her anywhere other than the NYPD, and apparently she’d kept her abilities under wraps there until the Chitauri invasion. I asked Xavier if they’d had her at his school,” Fury continued, “turns out he did try to recruit her when she was a kid, but her mother wouldn’t allow it. Said it was a family matter, that she didn’t need some stranger telling her how to teach her own kid.”
Natasha nodded as she flipped through the file absently. Toph Beifong certainly seemed…almost more intriguing than her daughter, to be quite honest. But she wasn’t the one knocking on SHIELD’s door. She looked back up at Fury.
“So you really think I’m the one who’s the best match for her? Not Captain America or Thor?”
“Those are stupid options and you know it, Romanov. I need someone who’ll push her, and I need someone I can trust,” Fury said, “There’re a lot of people here who aren’t going to like anyone from the NYPD, no matter how much she sings about how happy she is to be free of them. I need someone who I know can watch her, read her. Because if things go well, we might very well be integrating her into the Avengers Initiative.”
Despite the looming threats of displeasure and unemployment from General Ross and the Commissioner, respectively, Lin expected her infiltration of SHIELD to fail miserably from the start. She had meticulously avoided undercover assignments over the years—she knew that she was too blunt, too abrasive for it, and at that point there would be one too many secrets for her to juggle. Given her lack of experience, she didn’t see how she could possibly get past even the outer security of a top spy network. But for some reason, it was almost effortless to play her part convincingly. As far as she could tell, she’d failed to arouse suspicion from anyone thus far—she’d had to go through Maria Hill before she was even allowed to see Director Fury, and though Hill appeared more calculating and shrewd than anyone Lin had ever met, she’d bought Lin’s story hook, line, and sinker. From there, it wasn’t long before her security clearance checked out and Fury admitted her as a full-time agent for SHIELD.
Lin couldn’t quite tell what she was doing right, why she could move so smoothly throughout the ranks of SHIELD without anyone doubting her presence or motivations. Maybe because it was so easy to believe her own cover story—that the NYPD had reacted poorly to the revelation of her metalbending abilities, and that she’d wanted to work for an organization that would better appreciate her skills. Truth be told, she had considered just up and leaving the force, that awful first night after Midtown. When she’d shown up to the precinct the next day, however, Detective Curtis had a made some crack about knowing who to turn to if they ever needed makeshift handcuffs, and the rest of the officers and detectives had shown her such unflagging loyalty that she decided to stay. She had no idea what the rest of the force thought of her (and she assumed that those who felt she’d been appointed lieutenant due to some sort of affirmative action or pseudo-feminism now had even more fuel for hatred), but the people she worked with at the 17th Precinct had been more than enough to keep her on the force.
Indeed, the worst part of this whole detail was that her friends on the force thought she actually was defecting—no one knew that this was an undercover mission except for the Commissioner and General Ross. What feeble excuses she’d managed to give to her friends hadn’t been enough for them to understand, and Lin hated that so many of them felt like she was going over to the dark side: particularly in the aftermath of the Midtown battle, there was no great love for SHIELD among those in the NYPD.
Still, in an environment where her metalbending was considered an asset rather than something to be guarded and hidden, she couldn’t deny that in many ways she felt more like herself than she had in years.
And now she found herself standing in a gym in headquarters, waiting for the agent who was supposed to guide her training and transition into SHIELD. She stood barefoot in the center of the gym, her toes curling under the training mat. She realized that she’d missed this, the extension of her senses that had been taught to her since childhood. Seeing—listening, she’d always preferred to think of it—with more than just her eyes and ears. True, she still was far, far out of practice, and her mother would still call this nothing. But it was closer to the style in which she’d been trained in a long, long time. Listening through the vibrations of the ground, like her mother before her. And if she was listening right—
“Agent Romanov, I’d assume?” she asked without turning around. She felt the footsteps stop at the doorway, felt the slightest sense of rigidity that indicated the other woman had been taken by surprise.
“Well, well,” Romanov said, as she finally made her way toward the center of the gym. “I’m impressed. There are very few people in this world who I can’t sneak up on.”
Lin shrugged. “I just pay attention to what’s around me.”
“In my experience NYPD cops are the ones least attuned to their surroundings, particularly when it comes to listening to the shadows,” Romanov said dryly. “Your mother is blind, right? She learned to ‘see’ through her feet, through the vibrations in the ground. I’d guess she taught you how to as well.”
At the mention of her mother, Lin scowled. “And how would you know about that? Don’t tell me SHIELD has an entire file prepped on my background…”
“We do, in fact,” Romanov responded coolly, “We make it our business to know things. Particularly about incoming agents who we know nothing about.”
“So what else do you know about me?” Lin growled, “Every instance I’ve used my metalbending on the force? Boyfriends I’ve had? What color my toothbrush is?”
“We know enough,” Romanov answered, her expression professionally blank. “Though, for the record, green’s not my favorite color.”
“Nice try,” Lin retorted, looking down at her dark green tank top and yoga pants, “but I don’t tend to color-code my toiletries with my workout clothes.”
Romanov shrugged. “Worth a shot.”
Lin sighed, forcing herself into the practiced, steely calm she drew up when dealing with infuriating superiors. She could already tell that she was not going to gel very well with this organization. Or at least, not with this particular woman.
“I’ve heard quite a bit about your abilities, Lieutenant Beifong. They seem…quite extraordinary,” Agent Romanov said. “Would you mind giving me a brief demonstration?”
Lin eyed the metal rafters in the gym up above, and bent them both in half. The ceiling groaned in protest, before she flicked her hand again and put them both back in their place.
Lin was used to her metalbending demonstrations eliciting gasps, applause, or more from the select few people she’d chosen to share her skill with. All it elicited from Agent Romanov, however, was an imperceptibly raised eyebrow.
“Well, extraordinary’s certainly one way of putting it.” She turned to the side for a moment, before clapping both her hands together and turning back to Lin. “Okay. One of the other things SHIELD wants to know is what your regular fighting style is. You’ve gotten this far keeping your powers under wraps. We want to know what you do when that’s your only option.”
Lin raised her eyebrows. She was met with that same professionally blank look from Romanov.
“Come now,” Romanov said, “I’m sure you’ve had some martial arts training in addition to your metalbending, yes?”
Lin nodded grudgingly. “Kung fu. Southern Praying Mantis. All of the metalbending movements come from that style.”
Romanov nodded. “All right. Let’s try this, then.” She moved away from Lin, bent into fighting stance. “You’re going to spar with me twice today. First, without the metalbending. Second, with.”
“I thought the whole point of this was for me to be working with my metalbending powers,” Lin said. Undercover or not, that didn’t mean she wanted to miss the opportunity to use her metalbending for all it was worth. “Not showing off how I’d managed not to use it all these years.”
Romanov’s eyes narrowed.
“My job here, Beifong, is to make sure you know enough about working with SHIELD and what precisely that entails. Part of that is adaptability. Particularly if Fury decides he does really want to include you in the Avenger Initiative. We face some…unusual things.”
So Fury was going to try and get her integrated into the Avengers. Lin filed that piece of information away for the report she’d be writing later for Ross.
They danced around each other for about a minute before Lin went in for a kick on Romanov’s right side. Lin had always thought she was pretty good. Maybe she still was. But Romanov was better. She deposited Lin on the ground after about five minutes. She lay breathing hard, glaring up at the Black Widow above her.
“Not bad,” Romanov said easily, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. “Not bad at all. Most people I’d have out in a minute flat.”
Lin took her hand. “I’ve been a black belt since I was twelve,” she said with a grudging respect, “Where the hell did you go to get so good at this?”
“I’ve been in this business longer than you’d expect, Beifong,” Romanov replied. Lin noticed she didn’t fully answer the question. “Okay, let’s do it again with your metalbending. Give me all you’ve got, and pin me down—if you can.”
Lin grinned. Finally, something in her element. “Your agents won’t mind it I mess up the gym a little, do you?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Romanov replied smoothly. “if you think it’ll help you catch me.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Lin would have thought that metalbending something to hit Romanov would be easy, but she spun, dodged, and evaded everything she threw at her, almost as though she knew it would be coming first. Even if she failed to dodge a piece of metal she was able to snake out of it before Lin had time to get a firmer grip.
“Come on, you can do better than that!” Romanov called out, after a good twenty minutes had gone by. “You’re going by the book, Beifong. Surprise me a little!”
Lin snarled wordlessly as she crouched down. Frustration coursed through her. Fucking aliens had been easier this. She looked up at Romanov and behind her, glancing at the cables that held up the sandbags at the end of the gym.
Romanov wanted her to go off the books? Fine. She ran headlong towards Romanov, catching her in the stomach with her shoulder and bowling her to the ground. Before she had time to respond, Lin gestured toward the cables as they snaked up behind Romanov. She turned, but before Romanov could dodge them Lin had them around her ankle. Romanov turned, but before she could undo Lin twisted her hand upward sharply. The cable yanked up toward the ceiling, bringing the Black Widow up with her.
Lin gave a grim smile. Not exactly "pinned down," but close enough.
The next week, Natasha found herself headed toward the communal lab that Stark and Banner shared. Of course, Stark Tower was big enough for multiple separate labs for each of them, but the two of them had been working on a lot of joint projects these days. What exactly they were doing, Natasha couldn’t say—there was a reason she wasn’t a scientist.
As she got closer to the lab, she paused, tilting her ear just to be sure she was hearing right. Instead of the usual AC/DC or Nirvana blasting, there was...”Walk the Line”? Now that was a new one…
As she suspected, only Banner was in the lab, bent in concentration over a microscope. She let her footsteps fall more heavily to alert him to her presence—Stark had given her hell before about sneaking up on scientists in their labs, and while she didn’t particularly care about that when it was Stark concerned, Banner was one scientist she definitely did not want to startle in the middle of his work.
“Hey,” she said. Banner looked up.
“Oh, hey,” he said, “I thought you were going to be gone for couple more weeks, with that new agent.”
“Still gone, officially,” she replied, “but I had some stuff to take care of here. I take it Stark’s out for the day?”
“How can you tell?” Banner asked, leaning back against the lab table.
“Johnny Cash?” Natasha replied wryly, glancing up toward the speakers. “I didn’t think Stark allowed anything to play in his lab that wasn’t strictly heavy metal.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Bruce said, “Turns out this is our compromise music. Cash’s got enough bad boy in him to satisfy Tony. Not quite my style, but it’s a lot less—grr, aargh, crash bang smash,” he finished, doing what he probably thought was an accurate imitation of Stark’s favorite drummers.
Natasha allowed herself a small smile. If ever she were to bond with Banner, it would probably involve her forcibly holding Stark back while Banner jury-rigged JARVIS to play his Stravinski playlist on repeat.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?”
“Not sure—I think he went with Pepper to some business thing in California, so they might not be back for a couple of days. Anything I can help with?”
“I just wanted to ask him something about the properties of Captain America’s shield,” she said, “The metals and stuff. You’d think Steve would have been of some help, but all I got from him was a blank look and something about ‘WellHowardalwaysknewmoreyoushouldaskTony.’”
Bruce chuckled, “Yeah, that sounds like him. We’ve still gotta work on him getting comfortable around science.” He frowned. “Hmm. Well, I don’t know much about the shield itself, but I know a bit about vibranium. Is that what you want to know about?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said, “Specifically, is it a metal that comes from the Earth?”
“Well, it’s a metal that came from a meteorite that crashed to Earth thousands of years ago” Banner said, “So it’s “earth” in the technical sense…but it’s not our earth, per se.”
“Uh huh,” Natasha nodded slowly. “So if Beifong’s ability to bend metal comes from her ability to bend earth, she wouldn’t be able to do anything to the shield?”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Banner replied, “Your average meteorite’s got a similar elemental composition, same molecular structure and kinds of crystals that appear in an earth igneous rock. So when she’s metalbending, it shouldn’t make much of a difference if it’s from a meteorite or our planet itself. But we won’t know for sure unless she tries it…what’s going on? Do we not trust our new girl?”
“She’s not our new girl, not yet,” Natasha said, “and SHIELD trusts her just fine. I just want to know the full extent of her strength—and limitations, if she’s got any.”
Bruce smiled knowingly. “Took a pounding from her, eh?”
Natasha scowled. “No more than a pounding she’ll give to Stark when they meet. She’ll have him like a puppet on a string in a sparring match.” She sighed. “I was just curious. So, maybe she’d be able to get the Cap’s shield from him, but I’ll bet she still couldn’t get Mjolnir from Thor if she tried. And you…”
“I don’t get anything,” Banner reminded her, “Not in training. And let’s work on the assumption that she won’t have to go up against the Other Guy in a real fight.”
“Right,” she said, “of course.” An uncomfortable silence hung between them, and after a few seconds Natasha realized there wasn’t going to be much she could to do to save the conversation. She gave Banner a little wave as she turned towards the door.
“Well, enjoy the Man in Black,” she said, “I’ll see you when I’m back.”
“See you then,” he replied. “Oh, and Natasha?”
“You don’t have to do that, you know,” he said quietly.
She tensed, just a little, and turned back to face him. “Don’t have to do what?”
“You know, the whole—“ he stomped his feet hard on the floor. “Be worried about sneaking up on me in the lab.”
“The last time I snuck up on someone in this lab I got a wrench thrown at my head for my trouble,” Natasha retorted, “I don’t want to be accused of causing any Grand Experiments to be ruined.”
“Natasha,” he said again, “I’m a scientist. Tony can mess with you all he wants, and he’s more than a little excitable in the lab, but I wouldn’t be here if I thought that someone startling me was going to ruin some experiments.”
Natasha didn’t even have to meet his eyes to know what the true message behind his words was.
She nodded curtly. “Well, next time I’ll try and go more espionage on you,” she said with a forced smile, “Until then, Dr. Banner.” She gave a mock bow as she backed out of the lab.
She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until the elevator doors closed and she let it out. She sighed as she leaned back against the elevator walls.
In the short time that she’d known him, Bruce Banner had inadvertently revealed more to her than he’d revealed to anyone else on the team, save perhaps for Stark. For all of his tense postures and quiet mannerisms, he’d shown her in their very first meeting that he had the ability to lie and manipulate a situation to his advantage, when he’d faked that anger so very well. And really, she shouldn’t hold that against him—a man who’d been hunted that long was bound to use whatever it took to stay out of captivity. But it was hard to forget the adrenaline that had coursed through her as she’d reached for her gun and pointed it at his face.
She’d seen more, though—the anguish in his eyes when he’d looked at her in the helicarrier, just before he’d hulked out. Fear, agony, self-hatred, and a resigned helplessness that might have broken her heart if she hadn’t been so worried about him breaking her neck.
With all of that—knowing all the pieces and particles, the fear and the anger and the pain—she should be able to trust him. She should not fear him.
But she couldn’t, and she did. Because for all of her strength and stealth, intelligence and weaponry, there was nothing to be done against the Hulk. Nothing to do but run, and pray that he didn’t come after you. And Natasha could not abide running.
She shook her head. With Fury on her case about Beifong, Banner was an issue for another time. For now, there were far more pressing things that called to her attention.
“You know, SHIELD headquarters has got its own supply of alcohol,” Clint plopped down cheerfully on the other side of the bar as Natasha carefully poured herself a shot of vodka. “And I thought the point of this was to get you away from us for awhile?”
“Stark’s got more variety and better quality,” she said, “And the point of this was not for me to ‘get away’ from you. Fury wanted me to train Lieutenant Beifong because she might be coming into the Avengers …though God only knows why he thought I of all people would be the best for the job.”
Clint grinned. “Beifong’s driving you crazy, isn’t she?”
Natasha glared. “What’s got you so upbeat?” It figured that Clint would finally be getting back to his old self around the same time her own moods took a nose-dive for the worse.
“He just bought tickets to the Blackhawks’ opening game in Chicago,” Steve said as he came in behind Clint. “Airfare’s covered and everything.”
Natahsa rolled her eyes. She and Clint had reached the point where they understood each other almost without thinking, but no matter how many times he tried to explain it to her, she would never quite get his hockey obsession. She eyed the still-grinning Clint. “You want a drink or not?”
He nodded. “The usual, of course.”
She got Stark’s special supply of whiskey out from the back cabinet. Really, she should not know the penthouse bar so well.
“Anything for you, Cap?” she asked, “Root beer? Ginger ale?”
“No thanks,” Steve said, looking at the bottle of whiskey with mild concern. “Won’t Tony mind that you’re drinking out of his private stash?”
“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Natasha said, “and what he finds out after the fact can’t be undone.”
Clint smiled widely and raised his glass. “Cheers, Nat.”
“So,” Steve said, “Tell us about this new ‘metalbender.’ What’s she done that’s got you wound up so tight?”
Natasha sighed. “Oh, I’m not the one who’s wound up tight. Fury sent us on a couple of small missions this week—nothing too important, but enough to get a handle of how she’d act in the field or in a crisis.”
“Didn’t go well?” Clint asked.
“Well, we got done what we needed to get done, but she’s just so concerned with sticking with the ‘plan,’ and doing exactly what our marching orders were. Plus, once you get the whole NYPD ‘for God and country’ bit mixed in, it’s like having an uptight patriotic dog growling at your shoulder the whole time.”
Steve cleared his throat.
"Erm…sorry, Cap,” Natasha said. “That was more of a jab at the NYPD than at the patriotism thing.”
“It’s okay, Natasha,” he said, “I know patriotism’s not exactly a popular sentiment with everyone in this century. But, you know, playing by the rules isn’t always a bad thing,” he went on, “In the Army, we’d be pretty far adrift and pretty far gone if people didn’t take orders without question. It’s the way things are done. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all brainwashed.”
Clint caught Natasha’s eye. She gave him a warning look, an imperceptible shake of her head. Don’t. Steve didn’t know yet—didn’t need to know. Though, she thought to herself, maybe that was why she was so twisted up about Beifong’s need to blindly follow everything they’d been told. It hit too close to home. Too close to how she had been, before SHIELD.
As that particular connection clicked, her eyes narrowed. If that was why Fury had wanted her on this detail, oh, she would be having some very choice words with him when this was all over…
“But we aren’t Army, Cap,” Clint broke in lightly, “that’s the point. And if she’s blindly trusting the word of her superiors every time, she’s not going to get anything accomplished in our line of work.” Natasha reached for the whiskey bottle to top off Clint’s drink.
“She’s trying to prove…something,” Natasha said, “And I understand that. She’s had to hide her powers for a long time. But she’s got too much rigidity. No imagination, no flair for improvisation at all.”
“She can’t be that rigid,” Clint smirked, “otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to get you strung up by your ankle from the ceiling that first day.”
“Tell me who at SHIELD told you that,” Natasha said calmly, “and I guarantee you’ll find all of their dirty laundry aired before Fury by morning.”
“Hey, gossip travels, Nat. And I might have watched it through the vent shafts…ow!” he said as Natasha punched him on the arm, “I was curious! It’s not every day we get someone like her landing on our doorstep!”
“No,” Steve said, “No it’s not.” He turned to Natasha. “You think she can work with us, as a team? I mean, is she someone we can trust?”
Natasha gave him a long look. No, she didn’t trust Beifong, and it was more than what she had been telling them about for the past ten minutes. There was something off about her. Something Natasha couldn’t quite place. Beifong was trying so hard to prove something, and the fact that she couldn’t pinpoint that something nettled her. But Natasha didn’t trust anyone fully, not really. And given how clear it was that she still couldn’t even trust Banner, she wasn’t sure how much her judgments of trust meant to most of them anyway.
“I don’t know, Cap,” she said finally, “but you’ll have a chance to find out soon enough. Fury wants me to bring her by Stark Tower sometime next week, have her meet everyone and maybe come in on some of the team training.”
“Hey, we won’t learn until we try, eh?” Steve said encouragingly.
“Is she gonna go up against Stark?” Clint asked, “Does he know what’s gonna hit him?”
Natasha shook her head as she put Stark’s whiskey back where it belonged. That particular matchup was something she was very much looking forward to seeing.
Lin had been in a fair number of fancy skyscrapers during her time on the force. The 17th precinct was in Midtown, after all, and had more than its fair share of white-collar crime to investigate—you’d be surprised how many mafia bosses managed to secure corner offices. Still, she didn’t think she had ever been in a building quite like Stark Tower before.
"Four of the floors are gym and training space,” Romanov told her as they rode the elevator up. “Then there’re more industry and lab space at the top than you know what to do with, and quite a few floors set aside for living spaces. I’ve got to hand it to Stark, he’s got a pretty nice setup going for himself here.”
“Yeah…that’s one way to put it,” Lin said. “He’s even got good elevator music.” The speakers were blaring “Highway to Hell.”
They got off at a mid-level floor and walked into a gym that was even larger than the one she’d been training in at SHIELD. Five men stood in a loose circle in the center of the room, all turning as they heard Natasha and Lin enter. One carried a large circular shield at his side, another was covered neck to toe in heavy red-and-gold armor, and the tallest had a particularly impressive-looking silver hammer hanging from his belt.
Nope, this wasn’t intimidating. Not one bit.
“Lieutenant, this is Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark, Agent Barton, Thor Odinson, and Dr. Banner,” Romanov gestured to each in turn. Lin blinked, staring at the unassuming man in the rumpled shirt and glasses. This was the guy who turned into the Hulk that Ross was so concerned about?
Captain Rogers stepped forward to shake her hand. “Good to meet you, Lieutenant,” he said, “It’s nice to have a new face around here.”
“It’s an honor to meet you, Captain.” She’d never admit to anyone—anyone—that she used to collect Captain America trading cards when her mother wasn’t paying attention. But she had. Honestly, what wannabe cop hadn’t when she was a kid?
“Lieutenant,” Stark stepped forward to shake her hand as well. “Heard a lot about you. And I would like to personally commend you for delivering the defeat that I could never hope to give to Agent Romanov.”
Beside her, she could feel Romanov shooting daggers towards the man she’d introduced as Agent Barton.
“What?” he said, “I didn’t tell him!”
“Security cameras, baby,” Stark directed back towards Romanov, “You want to drink my whiskey, don’t talk about stuff you don’t want me to hear.”
“If you really cared so much, wouldn’t you leave the penthouse locked when you left town?”
As the Romanov and Stark continued to argue, Lin walked over to Agent Barton, who had brought out a bow and a quiver with more add-ons than Lin would have thought possible.
“So is that, what, archery’s version of a smartphone?” she asked.
“You could put it like that. It’s definitely got a lot more stuff on it than it used to. Stark and Banner keep trying to add more apps to it, but I like it fine as it is now.” He jerked his thumb towards Dr. Banner, who had slipped quietly to a bench on the sidelines of the gym and pulled out a notebook.
“What’re you doing all the way over there, Doctor?” she asked, “Do you come jumping in from the sides?”
“Oh, I don’t join in for this sort of thing,” Banner said in a self-deprecating tone, “Believe it or not, turning into the Other Guy is…not exactly a painless process. And it can get messy. I just sit and watch, take notes for later.”
“Sometimes he even throws out snarky commentary,” Stark put in, “if he’s been spending too much time with me in the lab.”
“It is true!” Thor boomed, “Last week he made a reference to a gangly flying monkey when describing our friend Steven’s fighting technique. Before he started undertaking experiments with Anthony, he never said such things.”
“They’re telling you terrible lies about me, Lieutenant,” Banner said. He didn’t look up from his notebook, but the corners of his mouth twitched. “Don’t believe a thing they tell you.”
“All right, everyone, let’s just get started,” Rogers broke in, “let’s see what we can do with a bit of metalbending added to the mix.”
“Okay wait, before we do any of the usual stuff, I want a one-on-one round with Beifong here,” Stark said, “I want to see if she really could turn me into a prima ballerina.”
“Come on, Stark,” Barton said, “Right away?”
“What?” Stark said, “You’ve all been taking bets on it all week anyway, haven’t you?”
Lin raised her eyebrows. She still wasn’t used to the idea of her reputation preceding her. Or that she had a reputation she could live up to at all.
“No, it’s alright,” she said, “I’m up for a challenge, anyway.”
Stark grinned. “See? She fits in already.”
Lin joined Stark in the center of the gym. He shot her the trademark smirk she’d seen so many times on the news—all charm and confidence. Or arrogance, as his detractors would say. Lin wondered how he’d react if she did as well as the group seemed to be expecting.
“All right, Beifong, it’s man against metal—or, woman against metal, if we’re being technical,” Stark amended, before the faceplate of his armor closed over his face. “Count of three, yeah? One—two—three!“
He started towards her, and Lin stepped towards him, pushing forward with her right hand and shoving Stark back about five meters.
“Woah!” Stark shouted, the surprise evident behind the muffled tint of the helmet. “JARVIS, put everything you’ve got into the thrusters,” he said, but Lin was ready for this. The first time she’d ever tried to stop a moving car she had failed miserably, and spent the next three weeks after that practicing on a friend’s car in a New Jersey parking lot. She doubted Stark’s suit had more power than a Jeep going sixty miles an hour.
She held her hand out, pushing hard so that Stark was briefly held frozen in place. She felt a straining, a pushback—and suddenly he was gone, zooming around the gym and laughing at those on the ground.
Damn. What powered that thing?
She tried again, focusing all of her energy into keeping the metal there, thrusters or no thrusters. Stark stopped suddenly in midair. There was a spluttering sound as the thrusters tried to overcome it, but Lin’s hold was firm. She frowned in concentration and flicked her wrist upward. Stark went vertical.
Lin grinned. Once she got the hang of compensating for the extra power of the thrusters, it was business as usual. And now she could have a bit of fun. She lowered him back down and spun him around once, twice, three times. She lifted his arms above his head in what she thought was the right position (she had never actually taken ballet as a kid), and manipulated the armor into a poor imitation of a jete. She pulled one more pirouette for good measure, before she slammed him back, hard, against the wall.
She was met with a round of laughter and applause from the rest of the Avengers. A small smile was even playing on Romanov’s face.
“Mr. Stark,” Captain Rogers said, with an air of carefully controlled dignity, “I had no idea you were such a talented dancer. Bruce, please tell me you caught all of that on film.”
“Oh yes,” Banner chuckled, “oh yes, I did.”
“JARVIS, please make sure that Dr. Banner is not allowed to leave the gym until he deletes every second of that video,” Stark said as he staggered slowly back towards the center of the gym.
“Yes sir,” a tinny voice replied from above them.
“Hey, Rogers?” Stark said, still muffled behind the faceplate, “We planning to do any scrimmaging-type stuff today? Cos if we are, I want Beifong on my team.”
For someone who was supposed to be off-duty on the Avenger Initiative, Natasha had been spending far too much time in Stark Tower lately. Particularly, far too much time in the R&D levels. The music was turned down, for once, and she could hear the muffled voices of Stark and Beifong as she headed back towards the lab.
“Yeah, I can build all this stuff in, no problem,” she heard Stark saying, “Jesus, where’d you get these designs?”
“I came up with the idea for the cables years ago,” Beifong replied, “Made a basic model back then, but couldn’t put it into much use on the force. And I’ve never had access to the kind of tech that Stark Industries has got, could only dream of getting them really streamlined…”
“What’re you two up to?” Natasha asked as she walked in.
“Making plans to build some special equipment for Beifong here,” Stark said, “metal cables that she can yo-yo out and back in, and some special shoes that she can metalbend off to use that vibration-location thing she’s got going on. It’ll be useful as hell if we do any sort of infiltration stuff.”
“Sounds like it,” Natasha turned to Beifong. “Just putting you on notice, Fury’s out for blood. He truly does not appreciate it when his agents leave their phones on silent.”
“Ah, shit,” Beifong pulled her phone out from her from her pocket and groaned. “I’d better go find out what he wants. Be back in a few minutes,” she said to Stark.
“Avoiding Fury, huh? A woman after my own heart,” Stark said fondly as Lin’s footsteps faded. “Think he’ll deem her ‘volatile’ enough to join the Freaks and Geeks Initiative?”
“Probably,” Natasha said, “I don’t think he still knows how he feels about her old NYPD ties, and I’m probably not helping matters with my reports on her. But then, I’m not exactly known for approving people to join the Avenger Initiative.” She raised an eyebrow pointedly at Stark.
“Touché,” Stark flipped over what looked like a large metal boot, poked at it with a small screwdriver.
“So,” Natasha asked, “What do you think of her?”
“I like her,” Stark said, “She’s smart, she’s fast, she’s got an even bigger stick shoved up her ass than you do –which is why it is so perplexing that she gets along with me better than she does with you.”
Natasha shrugged. “Who knows—maybe your sad excuse for ‘charm’ reminds her of some misbegotten family member.”
“My mother, in fact,” Lin called out from the hallway, “We had a family friend who was ‘Twinkle Toes’ until he turned sixty.”
“You know, Beifong, the point of eavesdropping is to not let people know you’re listening in,” Stark called back, “don’t make me get JARVIS to soundproof the lab again.”
Natasha looked back at Stark. “Again?”
“Got worried for awhile when Barton moved in,” Stark said, “He spends more time in the vent systems than out of them most days.”
Natasha sighed. “If you’re worried about him spilling your secrets back to SHIELD, he’s not going to. He moved here for a reason, Stark, and he takes loyalty seriously. The vent thing, that’s just the way he is.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Stark tinkered again with the metal casing. “Still, Bruce is…well, a lot more honest in the lab than he is anywhere else. I didn’t know who he wanted hearing that stuff, at first.”
“So how does SHIELD feel about all this, anyway?” Stark asked, “Us stealing your agents left and right, all holed up here in the Tower instead of at headquarters…”
“You haven’t stolen any agents, Stark. I still answer first to SHIELD, you know,” Natasha replied, “And Clint does too. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be stuck babysitting the Metallic Wonder over there…” she trailed off as she realized how much like Stark she sounded. Really spending too much time in the R&D levels.
Stark gave a knowing grin. “Careful now, or someone might think you actually do live here.”
She snorted. “Have to get a lot better security system around here before I even start to consider it.” She turned toward the door.
“Hey,” he said suddenly. She turned.
“This whole ‘team,’ this whole songs-by-the-campfire, assemble-the-troops thing, it wasn’t my first choice either,” he said. “In fact, you were first in line to remind me that my personality type is absolutely incompatible with the concept. And it might be for completely different reasons,” he pointed his screwdriver at her, “but I’m betting yours is too.
“But it’s what we’ve got, now,” he continued, “And with Beifong signing on, adding new people, I dunno, I’m just…rolling with it, yeah? Maybe you should too.”
“Stark, I’ve got no problem ‘rolling with it,’” Natasha rolled her eyes. “But—“
“But what?” he challenged, and there was something different in his eyes. “You’re not the only one with baggage coming into this, Romanov.”
Natasha liked to think she had a slow-burning fuse, but Stark was rapidly approaching the end of it. If he thought he had any idea—she stopped. Stark and Banner each had a laundry list of trust issues at least as long as her own, for entirely justifiable reasons. Clint was still recovering from whatever Loki’d done to his head, and as much as Steve tried to joke about it, they all knew the 70 years he’d missed haunted him. Broken, the bunch of them. Profoundly screwed up, if you will. Yet she knew, somewhere between the narcissism and the sarcasm and the callousness, Stark actually did care about them. About all of them. He cared about making this team work, and he wanted her to care too. Or wanted to know just what it was that kept her from doing so.
But…no. No, he wasn’t allowed to see past those walls. That went into territory that Clint didn’t get, and there wasn’t much these days that the two kept hidden from each other.
“I want this team to work just as much as you do, Stark,” she finally said, “Don’t ever doubt that. But it’s like you said. I don’t think we really need a huge ‘songs-around-the-fire’ session to really make that happen, do you?”
Stark gave her a long look. “Fair enough,” he said, before he directed his attention back to his work, “Send Beifong back in here, okay?”
Natasha shook her head as she walked out of the lab. Well, well. Iron Man actually did know when to back off.
Lin couldn’t tell, in the following weeks, if Stark harbored resentment towards her for making him look like a fool in front of the rest of them that first day. But he insulted her no more or less than anyone else on the team, and seemed to respect her opinion in missions and fighting. Barton assured her that Stark hadn’t minded too much, and besides, he had asked for it anyway. Lin couldn’t tell if Barton told her this because it was true, or because he had gotten twenty dollars out of the match and wanted to try and make her feel better. Either way, it was comforting to know he cared.
The weeks since her first day with the Avengers were a lot easier than her first few had been with SHIELD. Harder physically, and messier, but…easier. She got along much better working with a team than just with Agent Romanov—the directives were much clearer, and the rest of the team seemed to have taken to her much better than Romanov had. Or maybe it was just that the rest of them didn’t have X-Ray vision trained on her, watching her every move. Now that she’d achieved the primary goal of her mission–infiltrating not just SHIELD but the Avengers themselves—the whole undercover thing became a lot simpler. She was better at simply being her, enjoying the newfound freedom of using her metalbending while in the company of a brilliant—though admittedly strange—mismatch of partners. It wasn’t until she got home at night that she had to sift her thoughts and observations into dual reports for the NYPD and the Army.
She’d finally seen Bruce Banner in action, multiple times. He might refuse to take part in training sessions, but seemed to have no qualms about hulking out if the mission called for it. He had tiptoed around her for days afterward, as though uncertain of how she’d react to him now that she’d seen his other half. And, truth be told, she wasn’t quite sure how to react. It was one thing to hear about the quiet, self-conscious man she’d come to know turning into a raging destructive giant at a moment’s notice. It was quite another to see it. She knew full well that the Army’s concern was more with the Hulk than any of the others—particularly given the fact that General Ross was running the show. And it was difficult to trust the Hulk on his own–even among the group, only Stark and Thor seemed to treat him with complete nonchalance, and Lin didn’t have the armor or indestructible Asgardian properties. Finally, tired of her own lingering doubts and skittishness, she’d taught the Hulk—or the “Other Guy,” as Banner called him—how to bend knots out of metal. It didn’t mean she’d come to trust their judgment in letting him run loose, but at least after that she’d squashed her fears in dealing with him. And Banner was a hell of a lot more relaxed around her after that.
Ross had been right about one thing—SHIELD gave the Avengers almost unconditional freedom in how they lived their lives and handled assignments. Orders came in and were carried out, but the how was sort of irrelevant. There were very few debriefs with agents afterward—indeed, Lin spent far more time at Stark Tower than she did at SHIELD. It wasn’t as though there were no connections whatsoever—Romanov and Barton would still disappear on their own solo assignments occasionally, and every so often Lin spotted Rogers dutifully up to his arms in paperwork. But Stark continued to emphasize that he was only a free-agent consultant for SHIELD, Banner kept as low a profile as possible when he wasn’t large and green, and Thor was on Asgard as much as he was on Earth.
Of course, there had been the uncomfortable afternoon when the seven of them had been hauled in front of Fury for stealing a plane to get them to an unauthorized zone in the middle of Kansas, where Jane Foster had detected atmospheric disturbances reminiscent of another Tesseract incident. It hadn’t been the first time they’d acted outside of SHIELD directives—Lin knew for a fact that this was the third unauthorized aircraft they’d used that month—but the third time seemed to have been the charm and tipping point for Fury, particularly after nothing had come out of Foster’s calculations. The meeting ended Stark and Fury shouting at each other about who was in charge of what, and Thor finally threatening to bash both of their heads in with Mjolnir if they couldn’t come up with some sort of truce. Fury had let them all go with a resigned look–almost as though he knew that trying to rein them in would do no good.
They all filed quietly out of SHIELD headquarters, trying not to attract too many stares as they passed. Romanov and Barton were talking quietly towards the back, while Rogers and Stark were arguing about how much of Fury’s rage had really been deserved. Lin gave them all a little wave as she turned to head home, but Stark called after her as she started to head down the subway steps.
“Hey, Beifong! Come on back to the penthouse for a few drinks with us, blow off some steam.”
Lin paused. She appreciated how easily they’d all accepted her as a part of their team, but she still couldn’t think of herself as one of them. Not yet. Besides, she still had all of those damn reports to fill out for Ross.
“Thanks, but I’ve gotta be heading home,” she said. “There’s some stuff there I need to take care of.”
“Bullshit,” Stark said frankly, “C’mon. It’s been a long day, and Barton makes a mean margarita. Besides, now that Thor’s lady-friend’s in town for the weekend the battle of the sexes won’t even be as unbalanced as usual. That is, unless our lovely spider is skipping out again?”
“No…no, I’m staying,” Romanov said, her voice strangely distant. She had remained entirely silent throughout the meeting, and there was an odd look in her eyes.
“C’mon, Lin, you’ve just survived your first real trial by fire,” Rogers said, clapping her on the shoulder, “Sitting through a round of Stark v. Fury deserves a trip to Tony’s penthouse more than anything else you’ve done with us so far.”
He looked so earnest and hopeful that Lin couldn’t help but concede defeat. Ross’s reports could wait.
As Lin suspected, the penthouse suite of Stark Towers was enough to blow her already high expectations out of the water. Pool table, dartboard, television, fully stocked bar, the works.
She had already met Pepper Potts on a couple of occasions, and liked the woman’s warm yet no-nonsense demeanor. She seemed to be the only one who could really get a handle on Stark, and had been nice to know someone else shared a desire for the Avengers to remember to do things like…well, eat. She hadn’t met Jane Foster or her assistant Darcy, though, and the combination was not quite something Lin had ever seen before. Both women were capable of talking a mile a minute, but Foster seemed only to speak a language that Stark or Banner could understand, while Darcy had the same wicked sense of humor that Lin’s friends from college had. She had no shortage of questions for Lin, ranging from how metalbending worked to what life was like in the NYPD to how many significant others had been scared off by either or both. Keeping up with the conversation was a bit overwhelming, but it was better than trying to parse out Jane and Thor’s talk of astro-whatsits and Einstein-Rosen bridges.
Lin had made it a habit long ago not to drink in front of strangers—she always seemed to have too many secrets to hide, and she did a crap enough job of hiding them while sober. So despite the fact that Clint did, in fact, make a very good margarita, she politely refused the second one and escaped quickly to the back of the penthouse after Darcy tried to make her do tequila shots. Stark captured Darcy’s attention soon enough, and Lin found herself gravitating towards Captain Rogers and Dr. Banner, who were sitting at a table in the back, their heads together in deep conversation.
“Not interrupting anything, am I?” she asked as she approached.
“Oh no, not at all,” Bruce said, indicating the chair next to him, “In fact, maybe you could help us.” She sat down.
“Not one for recreational alcohol consumption, I take it?” Steve asked.
Lin blinked. “What?” Steve looked pointedly at the bar, where Pepper was trying unsuccessfully to keep Tony and Thor from downing beer mugs that looked to be filled to the brim with Barton’s margaritas.
“Oh. No, not particularly. I don’t see you two joining in on the fun either,” she pointed out.
“Well, I can’t get drunk, and Bruce here doesn’t like to risk it,” Steve said, “Occupational hazards of being superheros, we’ve been told.”
Lin nodded. “Makes enough sense.” She sat down next to Bruce. “So, what do you do back here?”
“Well, Bruce has taken to filming choice scenes of these parties for blackmailing purposes,” Steve grinned, “Though really it’s more for our own amusement than anything else. JARVIS came sweeping down on us the minute Bruce mentioned that video-sharing website, what’s it called…”
“YouTube?” Lin asked.
“Yeah, that one,” Steve said. “Nothing makes it on there around here without JARVIS’s explicit say-so.”
“In the meantime, we try and plan out Steve’s schedule for cultural re-integration,” Bruce put in. “Which is where you come in, Lieutenant. We’ve moved past the real classics at this point, so I’m trying to figure out a Best of the Eighties compilation. Heavy on the sci-fi, low on the Brat Pack.”
“Loooow on The Breakfast Club, “ Lin agreed, “Though, if you’re going for cultural re-integration I don’t know if we can really rule it out.”
“You’ve got a point there,” Bruce said reluctantly, “but I honestly don’t know if we can get Tony, Clint, and Natasha in on those.”
“Come on,” Lin said, “You’re telling me Stark wouldn’t go for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Pepper wouldn’t make googly-eyes over Sixteen Candles?”
“Aaaah, you’re killin’ me, Smalls,” Bruce groaned. Steve gave him a blank look. “Sorry, Steve. Have to wait until the Nineties for that one.”
“Well, Blade Runner, for sure,” Lin said. “Alien, if you haven’t gotten to that yet. E.T. and Back to the Future for Spielberg, Ghostbusters, The Princess Bride…”
“Ooh, Indiana Jones,” Bruce said, “can’t forget those.”
Lin snorted. “You scientist types wouldn’t.”
Bruce ignored her. “Terminator, The Wrath of Kahn…” his expression grew thoughtful. “Steve, would you be up for any more Vietnam movies?”
Steve winced. “Maybe, Bruce. I don’t know though, Apocalypse Now…well, it was a bit much for all of us, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Bruce sighed, “So we’ll keep Platoon and Full Metal Jacket on the backburner for now.”
Lin nodded. “Well, if you want to replace it with something on the absurd side… Beetlejuice. That was the first movie I ever convinced my mom to take me to the theaters to see.” She grinned. “Tells you something about the kind of childhood I had that that was the first film I could find that was exactly up my mother’s alley.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Your mom wasn’t big on the movies, then?”
“Well, she was an immigrant, so English wasn’t her first language,” Lin said, “and she’s blind. So thirteen-year-old Lin had to find films that she’d be sure Mama Toph would enjoy just by listening to the dialogue.” She sighed at the memory. “Of course it was Beetlejuice.”
“She must have been incredibly brave,” Steve ventured, “to come to a new country with all of that to handle.”
“Brave? Nah, she would punch you in the face for saying that,” Lin smiled, “She was tough…earth-tough. Nothing scared her, not really. And if you didn’t play by her rules, too bad. That’s why she was so against me joining the police. I’d have to mold to their rules, not make my own. And she wasn’t too keen on my hiding my abilities. ‘What use is the NYPD going to have for an oddball Chinese earthbender,’ she’d say…” She stopped suddenly. She never talked about her mother like this, not ever. Certainly not in front of people she was technically supposed to be spying on.
She gave a little laugh. “Agh, I’m sorry…listen to me. I haven’t even gotten a proper number of drinks in me and I’m already boring you with family history.”
“Welcome to Bruce and Steve’s Sobriety Corner,” Bruce said with a crooked smile, “You’d be surprised at how freely the serious conversation tends to flow in this little part of the penthouse.” He looked at Steve. “Last week it was existentialism and…what else?”
“Fathers,” Steve said somberly.
Something clouded over Bruce’s face then, something Lin wasn’t sure she should be privy to. She made some excuse about needing to find a bathroom and slipped out onto the balcony.
The view truly was incredible from up here, enough so that she felt less guilty about leaving Bruce and Steve behind so abruptly. She leaned over the balcony, enjoying the feel of the wind blowing through her hair.
She felt Romanov come up from behind her. “Hello, Agent Romanov,” she said guardedly.
“How can you tell it’s me?” Romanov asked. For once her tone was curious rather than subtly hostile.
“You step so lightly,” Lin said, “If I wasn’t so worried about getting clobbered for it, I’d call you Twinkle Toes too.”
Romanov gave a small laugh and leaned up against the balcony next to her. “I see you were enjoying the non-inebriated company for awhile back there.”
“Yeah…planning for Steve’s movie nights,” Lin said, before she lapsed back into silence.
“Far be it from me to pry,” Romanov said dryly, “but you don’t exactly seem to be enjoying yourself here tonight.”
“The Sobriety Corner got a little too deep for my comfort,” Lin responded, “And everyone else, they’re all…well....”
“Acting like a bunch of stupid college kids who’ve only just discovered the joys of liquor?” Romanov asked, “Yeah, Stark tends to have that effect on people. But it gets to be endearing, if you let it. And it turns out you can win a lot of money from them in poker if you get them smashed enough.”
She sighed. “And as for Steve and Bruce…don’t worry about them when they get like that, okay? They always bounce back before the end of the night.”
“Do they really?” Lin asked, doubtful, “When I left them it seemed like they were...” she wasn’t quite sure how to put it.
“But then Bruce starts up with the Avengers’ Funniest Home Videos, or Steve tries to teach him how to play some god-awful ‘40s card game, or Stark comes over and tries to convince them that the tower’s infrastructure really can handle drunk-Hulk,” Natasha said with a wry smile, “they get by.”
Lin laughed, and looked out again at the view.
“Just seems like they both have a lot on their plate,” she said after a pause, “I didn’t want to intrude on that.”
“They’re not going to say anything they’re not okay with you hearing, Lin. Believe me, Stark wouldn’t have invited you here if they didn’t all feel like you belong here. They…we all do.”
Lin looked sharply at Romanov. Those last words sounded like they’d been pulled out of her at a great cost, but her expression was merely thoughtful as she stared out across the city. Lin wondered what she had possibly done to finally earn the Black Widow’s confidence. It certainly wasn’t something she really deserved.
“Hey, you’ve come a long way this month,” Romanov said lightly, “Way farther than I ever would have expected. You didn’t even bat an eye at us stealing that plane. So can I make a suggestion? Enjoy this, tonight. Stark’s got a ‘work hard, party hard’ philosophy like you wouldn’t believe, and you don’t want to buy into it every weekend, but…loosen up around them, yeah? Though, you’re probably a bit of a lightweight, so maybe you shouldn’t go in for the heavy games.”
Lin leaned back against the balcony, a slow grin spreading across her face. She knew a challenge when she saw one. “You really think so, Romanov?”
“Oh, Beifong, there’s no way in hell you are drinking me under the table.”
Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack. Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.
Lin gave a little yell as she sat up in bed, looking around in a panic for the source of the ducks. She wondered if this was some sort of still-drunken hallucination, before she saw her phone vibrating and blinking in the dark.
She groaned. Whichever genius among them changed her ringtone to a duck call last night (her money was on Barton) was seriously in for it. She fumbled for the phone and hit “answer” before she gingerly held it to the side of her head.
“Beifong, you were supposed to get those reports to me a day and a half ago,” General Ross barked to her on the other end. Lin winced and moved the phone a few inches away from her ear. “What the hell have you been up to that’s more important?”
“It’s six a.m. on a Saturday morning, General,” Lin said blearily, “Sleep is generally considered a relatively important thing, isn’t it?”
“Don’t give me any of your sarcasm today, Beifong, I am really not in the mood,” Ross snarled, “You’ve been holed up with them for over a month now, we know that they’ve gone on at least three missions in the past two weeks, and I want answers.”
“General, we were out in the middle of the country yesterday, on a mission that I’m sure you already know about,” Lin said, in a quiet voice that was caused more by her splitting headache than any sort of patience or civility she felt towards the General. “After that, we had to face Fury and more SHIELD bureaucracy than I ever care to deal with again. I’m exhausted, and I want to make sure that the report I give you is accurate. Just give me a few hours. I promise I’ll have the reports in for you by the end of day.”
“You had better, Beifong, or I promise you I’ll find some other freakshow who can get into SHIELD and give me better answers than you.”
Her phone beeped as the call cut out, and Lin could imagine Ross slamming his phone down on his desk at the Pentagon. She sighed as she sat up and buried her head in her hands, gently massaging her forehead in an effort to make the pain go away. God, there was a reason she didn’t like getting drunk. Secrets. Secrets and hangovers.
Her hands clenched as she thought more on Ross’s parting words. Too bad for him that the “freakshow” is the only one who can get in close enough to get the damn job done for him. The more she dealt with the man, the more disgust she felt towards him, and the more it made her question which side she was really on. She knew exactly what he wanted her to say in those reports—that the Avengers were unstable, that the Hulk most so, that an authority higher even than SHIELD needed to come in and take control, take Banner away.
She knew, too, that against her better judgment her personal feelings were starting to cloud in on the matter. After a month of working with them she couldn’t not feel attached and loyal to each of them, even Bruce, even Natasha. But even if you took her personal feelings out of the equation, the blunt truth of the matter was that she couldn’t say the Avengers were more dangerous than helpful to society. They lacked discipline, they lacked control, and maybe they did lack stability. But who was to say that the world didn’t need something like that right now? She could not in good conscience say that bringing in outside control was going to any modicum of good, for any of them. On the other hand, she doubted good conscience mattered much to General Ross.
Should have expected this, going in so deep, Beifong, she thought to herself, should have known you were going to get too attached.
She wished that she could call up one of her friends in the NYPD to get some sort of advice, any form of guidance, but she was in far too deep for that now. She had no idea how it would look to SHIELD if she started contacting her old police buddies, and Ross and the Commissioner were the only contacts she could reach with a secure encryption. Besides, she was sure that the Commissioner was too far deep into Ross’s pocket to be able to advise her in any real way.
She sighed as dragged herself out of bed and into her desk chair. She flipped open her laptop and stared at the blank screen. After about five minutes, she decided to start with the bottom of the report and work her way up: Further time is requested to evaluate the performance of the Avengers, so that we might best determine the appropriate course of action to take…
Natasha blinked as the sunlight hit her face. She looked around, remembered that she’d fallen asleep in Clint’s apartment. She’d been in no mood to go all the way back to her quarters in SHIELD when the party finally broke up around 4 in the morning, so she’d trailed off after Clint, ignoring Stark’s catcalls and Darcy’s whoops of delight. She knew she was adding fuel to far too many rumors, but that was all right. It had been comforting enough to simply drift off, her head pillowed against Clint’s leg, smiling as they murmured half-drunkenly of how they must be muddying the waters of whatever betting pool Stark and the rest had going about the two of them.
Clint groaned as she slid gently out of bed and rolled over to the other side. She shook her head and wandered back upstairs to the kitchen in the penthouse. She hoped that Pepper was awake, maybe even in a breakfast-making mood. Her cooking skills were erratic at best, but Pepper could make incredible French toast if she put her mind to it.
But instead of Pepper she found Tony was standing in flannel pajama pants and a wifebeater at the edge of the kitchen, flipping through various pages on a screen and muttering to himself as he sipped at the coffee in his other hand. He turned, and Natasha prepared herself for the lewd sarcasm to be thrown her way, but he merely said “morning” distractedly and turned back to the screen, staring intently.
She sniffed. She wasn’t sure what had caused the sudden lack of Stark snark, but she’d take what blessings she could get.
“Bit early for the latest scientific discovery, isn’t it?” she asked as she grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl next to the sink.
“What?” He turned back around, and only then seemed to really notice whom he was talking to.
“It’s never too early for science, Romanov,” he scoffed, “But this isn’t... Darcy was messing around on Google at…some point last night, I don’t remember when. I was too drunk to really look at it then, but I told her to leave all the tabs open, so I could check it out in the morning. And...” he frowned, made a motion with his hand that split the screen in two. “JARVIS, run your standard SHIELD-hacking protocol, will ya? On their files here and on this department at Cornell.”
“Right away, sir,” JARVIS responded. Natasha raised her eyebrows.
“And Fury yells at you for stealing planes…”
“So what’s this all about? It’s got to be pretty important if you’re working through a Saturday morning hangover.”
“Darcy was laughing at the Sobriety Corner last night, started googling Bruce and Steve’s names together,” he said, frowning as he tried to recall the specific chain of events. “And there was a bunch of classified shit that came up. Not surprising, given who they are, but…this stuff at Cornell. There was a mention of what’s-his-name, that doctor who did the work on Captain America, and the super-soldier serum…”
“Sir, it might take a bit of time to fully parse through these files, particularly the ones at the university,” JARVIS said, “but SHIELD is most certainly conducting a covert investigation into the bioengineering department at Cornell.”
“Then get Banner and Rogers down here,” he said, a dark look in his eye, “I think they’re going to want to take a look at this.”
Stark had Fury on the phone within the hour, but he refused to give any details on the SHIELD investigation. All he would tell Stark, Bruce, and Steve was that the situation was being looked into, and that they would be sure to contact the Avengers if and when their services were needed. That particular conversation ended with Bruce walking out of the room, Stark and Fury devolving into the same argument they’d had the day before, and Steve and Natasha fighting to play peacemaker. Eventually Steve persuaded Stark to take out his anger on Captain America’s shield, and Stark agreed after getting in one final dig at the One-Eyed Wonder.
“I want you in my office tomorrow, Romanov,” Fury snapped as Steve gently led Stark towards the elevator, “You, Barton, and Beifong.”
When the three of them arrived in Fury’s office the next day, Natasha expected a chewing-out for not putting a stop to Stark’s hacking. Instead, Fury merely looked tense and pensive, as if he was done and tired with reminding his agents that they should know better, not to mention done and tired with trying to tell Stark what to do. He explained to them that believe it or not, SHIELD was very concerned about the scientists working to develop the serum, that it was a project being funded by the military, and that they were currently locked in a bureaucracy war with Army officials to get the government to intervene and cut the funding.
(It was the little things like this that made Natasha especially miss Coulson. There was an ongoing debate between her and Clint regarding his living-or-dead status—she’d tried to bribe Maria Hill for information, but she was keeping her mouth shut. Either way, he was gone from assignments like these. If he had been around, the asinine Army paper-shufflers wouldn’t know what hit them).
“We are doing everything we can to shut this project down, but in the meantime I can not have the Avengers jumping in the middle of it,” Fury said, in a tone that left no room for argument. “Rogers and Banner are too close to all of this, and the rest of you are too close to Rogers and Banner.”
Lin stirred at Natasha’s side. “Sir, couldn’t having Rogers and Banner involved be more of an asset than anything else? Wouldn’t the…ah, threat of a patriotic superhero and the Hulk be enough to convince them to stop?”
Fury shook his head. “Things get bad when they get personal, Beifong. Getting Rogers and Banner near anything concerning that serum does not fill me with any particular feelings of optimism.”
Lin opened her mouth to reply, but closed it when Natasha touched her arm lightly, reminding her without words of what she’d told her before the meeting started.
Rule #1 at SHIELD: Save your arguments with Fury for the things that matter.
Fury glanced at Natasha, the barest trace of smugness in his eye.
“Now,” he said to all of them, “I’m not stupid enough to try and convince Stark to hand over the intel he picked up, especially since it’s not anything we don’t already know. But if they get any stupid-ass ideas about this—you don’t follow. And if you can, try and make sure they don’t go ahead with them. It stops here. Understood?”
“So,” Lin asked as they walked out, “How serious do you think he is?”
“On a scale from ‘I actually wanted you to do this all along’ to ‘I will bazooka your ass out of existence,’ probably about a…six? Maybe seven?” Clint looked at Natasha for confirmation.
“Try an eleven, Barton,” Natasha returned, “Fury’s still deep in the doghouse with the Council. Anything too big or bad comes out of the Avenger Initiative, and it gets tied back to SHIELD? His ass get put even farther out on the line. If they decide to go in there, and they want it to be the whole team…well, if we do agree to anything, it’s got to be on our own time, out of uniform.”
“You know at the very least Stark and Banner are gonna go for it, Nat,” Clint said, “Fury’s got to know that there’s no way in hell any of them are going to take this lying down. And quite honestly, I don’t think that they should. This is what, the fifth attempted sequel to the Hulk? These people have got to stop trying to play God.”
“I can’t believe the higher-ups in the Army wouldn’t put a stop to it if they knew what those guys were really doing,” Lin said “after everything that happened in Harlem last year, the government can’t be stupid enough to meddle with that crap again.”
“You’d be surprised,” Natasha said darkly, “institutions like the Army rarely know when to leave well enough alone. Especially when they think they’re trying to make people better.”
“Ever the cynic,” Clint smirked, but he eyed Natasha uneasily. “We’ve gotta at least hope the Council will win the fight with the legislators eventually. In the meantime, Rogers is reasonable enough, right? Hopefully he’ll convince them all to leave well enough alone. ”
But as it turned out, it was the Cap who called them all together in the Tower the following day, after Tony finally finished hacking through the data he’d obtained from the Cornell files.
She walked in to find them all standing in a loose semicircle, and Natasha was suddenly reminded of that awful day on the helicarrier. Steve had the same expression of uncomfortable-yet-righteous anger, Tony had perfected the stance of pissed-off nonchalance, and Bruce looked more tense than Natasha had ever seen him. Lin stood stiffly off to the side, while Clint was perched on the table in the center of the room. She took the chair closest to him and sat down, hoping at least some of them would follow her lead.
Steve cleared his throat. “So, ah…as some of you already know, we’ve found whisperings of a SHIELD investigation into experiments being done at Cornell University regarding the super-soldier serum. Thanks to JARVIS, we’ve managed to get a fair bit of information from their computers. And what we’ve found, ah…”
“These idiots doesn’t know when to keep their needles and gamma-rays to themselves,” Tony broke in, “They’re trying to develop another serum. And it looks like it’s being funded at least partially by the military.”
Bruce rubbed the bridge of his nose compulsively. Tony glanced at him.
“You wanna see the data, big guy?” he asked, “I know you’ve been avoiding it, but…”
“No…no, let me see it,” Bruce said. “I want to know how far they’ve gotten with this.” Tony handed the tablet over to him. He scrolled through for about thirty seconds before sliding it back across the table with such force that it fell and cracked on the other side.
“God, they don’t know when to quit,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically harsh. “Don’t know when to fucking quit.”
“Apparently not,” Steve said, “Which is why we’re going in to stop them.”
“All of us?” Clint asked from the corner. “Is it really that big an op?”
“Well, we don’t expect them to go quietly,” Tony said. “Arrogant scientists on the verge of discovery, big guns at their back…
“I want to try talking first, though,” Steve said, “Me and Bruce. Try and make them understand that this is one experiment they really don’t want to keep working on.”
Natasha snorted. “Are you really that naïve? If they’ve gone this far with developing the serum, they’re not going to listen to sob stories from the two of you.” And putting the Hulk in the same room as those people is just an accident waiting to happen…
“It’s worth a shot, Natasha,” He turned to Bruce. “That is, if you’re okay with all of this.”
“Yeah. Yeah, definitely okay with alerting them to the fact that they’re playing with fire.” His mouth twisted as he pointed first to Steve and then himself. “Exhibit A, Exhibit B.” Natasha had never heard him sound so bitter.
“You guys realize that you’re going to have to go off the radar for this one?” Clint said from his position on the table, “Way off the radar. Fury would rather shoot down his own plane than risk SHIELD agents getting implicated in something like this.”
“So what does that mean?” Stark asked, looking at Clint, Lin, and finally Natasha accusingly. “You guys out for this one too?”
Natasha glanced at Clint, then at Lin. Felt the unspoken agreement pass between the three of them.
“No,” Natasha said, “No, we’re in for this. Started out with it, might as well stay in for the finish.”
“So,” Lin spoke for the first time, “how do we get there if there’s no SHEILD equipment to steal?”
“Hey, borrowed is really the proper term here,” Stark said, “but Pepper’s agreed to loan us Stark Industries’ private plane for the day. Should maybe have thought of that the last time, but better late then never, huh?”
It was decided that Natasha and Lin would go with Steve and Bruce to talk to the scientists, on the assumption that they were the least obtrusive and most diplomatic of the remaining five (Lin couldn’t help but laugh out loud when Steve said that. She had been called many things in her life, but “diplomatic” had never been one of them). Stark, Thor, and Barton would stay behind with the plane, on call in case things got to a point where the heavy artillery was needed.
Pepper was on hand to see them off, with a promise to Stark that she would make him pay for every scratch they got on her plane and a brief, fierce hug for Bruce. Barton took the pilot’s seat while Stark flew parallel to them in the Iron Man suit.
Natasha, Steve, and Thor were discussing strategy near the cockpit, but Bruce sat in the back, staring out the window of the plane at Stark pacing them, a distant look on his face. Lin walked to the back of the plane, took the seat beside him.
“You okay?” she asked.
He started, as though surprised to find her there.
“What? Yeah, yeah I’m fine,” he said, “I just…” he gave himself a little shake. “The thought of all this…it brings a lot back is all. This is how it all started, for me. Someone trying this, again…” he shook his head. “And I don’t even know what we could say that would make them change their minds.”
Lin shifted in her seat awkwardly. She wished she could find the right words to comfort him, but even Stark would have been a better choice for this sort of thing. She almost found herself wishing he’d decided to ride in the plane with them.
“Well,” she said finally, “Worst comes to worst, you’ll just have to take the offended archaeologist route, won’t you? That serum is approaching vintage, after all.”
That worked a small smile out of him.
“It belongs in a museum!” they chorused together. Natasha turned to give them an incredulous look. Lin shrugged.
“Nerds,” Natasha murmured as she turned back around, shaking her head, “I’m surrounded by nerds.”
Barton brought the plane down in a field outside Cornell’s campus, and Stark came up to touch down beside them as they got off the plane. He took off the faceplate and walked up to Bruce, slapping his shoulder briefly with an armored hand.
“Don’t let ‘em see you sweat, buddy,” he said, “and that goes for both of you.” He pointed at Steve. “No bashing of scientists with that pretty shield of yours, capisce?”
Steve rolled his eyes and gave a mock salute, and the four of them started toward the campus.
With Steve in his full Captain America uniform, there was little to stop security from allowing them to walk right into the bioengineering lab, where a group of six men and women bustled around various bits of equipment. They all looked up when Steve, Bruce, Natasha, and Lin entered the room, startled at their sudden appearance. A tall, balding man with dark hair recovered easily and strode briskly towards the doorway.
“Captain America, Dr. Banner,” he said, ignoring Lin and Natasha. “I’m Dr. Joshua Lashoff, the head of this little operation. I...can’t say we haven’t been expecting you. We had been wondering if you would be interested in checking on our progress, once you learned of our mission.” He held his hand out to Steve.
Steve smiled back at him, but didn’t take his hand.
“We've heard that you’re working on recreating the serum that Dr. Erskine created all those years ago, Dr. Lashoff,” he said, "just like the one the Army had Dr. Banner working on a few years back."
“That we have,” Lashoff said, a little too casually, “though it’s not been an easy process, let me tell you. Took quite awhile for us to get our feet off the ground. We assumed you were incommunicado, Dr. Banner, but we tried to ask Betty Ross if she’d be willing to help out, give us your old data. Didn’t have much luck there.”
Bruce stiffened noticeably.
“She wouldn’t want to be caught up in all of this again,” he muttered, his eyes flickering downward. “She’s moved on. Got her own life now.
“Yes, she didn’t seem to be too keen on anything when you or her father’s name came into play,” Lashoff said. Lin couldn’t stop herself from wincing at the mention of General Ross. “Still, it’s been a bit of a setback—having to start mostly from scratch, on what little data leftover from Erskine and your own work that the Army’s been able to scrap together for us. But we’ve made significant progress since then.”
“Doctor, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that we’re here because we approve of this venture you’ve got going,” Steve broke in quickly. “We don’t. In fact, we’ve come here to ask you to suspend all operations indefinitely.”
“But why on earth would you want us to do that?” Lashoff asked. “You know better than anyone, Captain Rogers, the unlimited benefits of the super-solder serum. It seems to have worked out quite well for you,” he said, eyeing Steve’s shield and uniform.
“Yes, and playing with all that gamma radiation worked out just fine for me, too,” Bruce said bitterly, “I can’t see very many people wanting to submit themselves to become the next Bruce Banner.”
“You have my every assurance that we are working to make the process far more failsafe than when you attempted it,” Lashoff said, “As for test subjects, we have offered a quite sizeable sum of money to anyone who wishes to volunteer.”
Natasha let out a low hiss of disapproval.
“And what if it goes wrong?” Bruce asked, “What if you don’t succeed, and you end up with another Hulk, or worse?”
“Well, you seem to have learned to control your demons,” Lashoff said smoothly, “If something does go wrong with the test subjects, it seems entirely plausible that they could learn control, too. And to be perfectly frank, Dr. Banner, I’ve seen the footage from Midtown. With all due respect to Captain Rogers,” he gestured at Steve, “Your controlled Hulk is far more of a fighting asset than Captain America will ever be.”
“You think that this is a picnic?” he asked, his voice strained, “A goddamn walk in the park? You think it’s any less painful just because I’ve learned how to live with it? Do you want to know what it feels like to expose a raw nerve, how much it cost to learn to control it, do you want to know how many people have died because I couldn’t—“ he broke off, his hands shaking. Lin and Steve exchanged a nervous look.
“Because that’s what you’ll be getting, if you keep this up,” he finished, taking a deep breath. “You won’t get a Captain America, all nice and shiny and packaged. You’ll get me. And the world doesn’t want another me.”
He advanced on the scientists. “And if you think I would let you do that—any of it—to another human being, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Dr. Lashoff looked more than a little intimidated, but he held his ground.
“You can’t tell us what to do, Dr. Banner,” he sneered, “There are more than enough people out in the world who would volunteer for the right price. And you have my word that we’ll manage to keep them in a much more—controlled environment than you were ever kept.”
The last of Bruce’s composure dropped, and he turned, swinging out hard at Lashoff. Lin started toward them, but stopped dead when she saw Bruce turn around once again, his eyes flashing green.
For a moment Natasha stood frozen, watching in horror as Bruce transformed into the Hulk, his shirt ripping at the seams and his head shooting up towards the ceiling. Then instinct kicked in and she ran, shoving the blonde researcher out of the way before a giant green fist came crashing down, knocking the bottles and lab equipment to pieces. He roared and smashed out again, flinging the scientists to the side, one by one, sending more materials flying.
“Cap, Lin, get him out of here!” Natasha shouted, “Outside, now!”
Steve flung his shield at the Hulk, and it bounced off his back. Snarling, he turned towards Steve, who ran out the door and down the hallway. The Hulk smashed after him, breaking through the walls that stood in his way.
Natasha shoved the blonde researcher into a closet, ignoring her protestations. She slammed the door and ran back through the halls of the lab. Truly, they deserved to be left to the Hulk, but she’d saved the lives of people who had done worse things before. Now wasn’t the time to start deciding who lived and who died.
“Barton, Thor, Stark, we need everyone on deck, now,” She heard Steve shout through the comm, “We have got one very out-of-control Hulk on our hands.”
Stark swore. “I take it your ‘talk’ didn’t go well?”
“I’d say decidedly not.”
“Talk him down, Stark,” Natasha spoke into the comm, as she ran outside, saw Steve continue to try and distract the Hulk from the terrified bystanders. “get him calmer, something,”
“Why me?” he squawked.
“What the hell else have you two been prepping for in that lab, if not this?” she snarled. “You’re the one he caught out of the goddamn sky…”
“Okay, okay! Keep your shirt on,” and suddenly the red-and-gold blur of Iron Man came zooming to a stop in front of the Hulk.
“Hey, Bruce, buddy…” Tony said with a gentleness that surprised even Natasha, “You’re okay in there, yeah? You’re safe, you’re good, you’re fine. I know those guys were planning some shitty stuff, but I can promise you, they’re not going to be doing it anymore…”
The Hulk snarled, batting out with one hand to shove Stark to the side. He flew and slammed into the building beside Natasha, smashing through the outer layer of concrete.
“Got any other…brilliant ideas, Romanov?” Stark asked thickly through the rubble.
Natasha leaned back against the side of the building and let out five different curses in Russian. She scanned the battleground before her, searching for something, anything, that might get them all out of this in one piece.
“Lin,” she said finally, “Those cables of yours. Think you can try to hold him down or something?”
“Worth a shot,” she heard. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lin run in front of Banner, metal cables shooting out from her arm gauntlets. They wrapped around his wrists and Lin yanked down, holding him in place. Lin pulled, trying to keep him restrained, but the Hulk only yelled and pulled his fists upward, jerking the cables up with him.
And suddenly Lin was airborne, flying through the air as the cables trailed behind her. She flipped through the air and rolled as she landed.
“Okay,” she heard Lin’s voice through the comm, “fine. Hard way.”
Natasha turned and saw Lin running, the Hulk chasing after her toward one of the gorges that cut through Cornell’s campus.
“Beifong, what the hell are you doing?” Stark shouted, “Don’t be stupid enough to try it again!”
“Come and get me, big guy,” she called. She stopped and the cables shot out once again, wrapping around Banner’s oversized arms once more.
“THOR!” Lin shouted, “A little help over here!”
There were too many people yelling at once for Natasha to tell Lin to get out of there, but as Thor ran up to Lin, reaching beside her to grab the metal cables, she suddenly understood. In one synchronous motion the two of them jerked the cables back and whipped them forward. With Thor’s added strength the Hulk was flung from his feet, and the cables wrapped around his hands pulled him down off the cliff’s edge. He crashed against the opposite side of the gorge and tumbled down the rocky surface into the river below.
Natasha ran up beside Thor, who had grabbed hold of Lin to keep her from tumbling over the edge along with the Hulk. Lin twitched her fingers upward, and the cables came snaking up from the bottom of the gorge. She collapsed against Thor, her face ashen.
“Lady Lin, are you all right?” Thor asked in concern.
“Yeah, fine” she panted. She moved her shoulders experimentally, gingerly. “Nope, nothing’s dislocated, somehow. I’ll be okay.” She looked up at Natasha. “What’s the status of everyone else?”
“Last I checked, all present and accounted for,” Natasha replied, breathing heavily, fighting to keep her voice as steady as possible. “You are world-class idiots, the both of you…” she glanced over the ravine, “but I think you might have done the trick.”
They stared over the side of the ravine together, at the motionless mass that was just starting to shrink back to Bruce-size.
“Cognitive recalibration,” Natasha said, “Is certainly one way to do it.”
The plane flight back into the city was, for the most part, tense and silent. Tony tried to make a crack to Lin about Oscar the Grouch, but Steve gave him such a look of intense disgust that he withdrew to the back of the plane, pouring himself a whiskey and muttering about Tightpants assholes who couldn’t take a joke. Steve tried to stand up to follow him, but Natasha placed a warning hand on his arm, shaking her head. The last thing they needed right now, she murmured, was to be picking fights amongst themselves.
Bruce had still been unconscious when they fished him out of the ravine, but he was stirring slightly now, still asleep but muttering incoherently. Everyone, Lin noticed, kept shooting him concerned glances when they thought that no one else was looking.
Thor tried to make conversation with Lin, telling her a story of a valiant battle between some bilgesnipes and the Warriors Three, but his words only barely registered amidst her own swirling thoughts. Her mind clouded as she thought of the implications of this day, of the choice she knew she was going to have to make as soon as the plane touched down in Manhattan.
As the skyline loomed out the windows, Lin went to find Barton at the controls in the cockpit. Lin sat down beside him and looked out the window to see three SHIELD agents waiting on the runway, along with Pepper and Director Fury himself, who appeared to be having a heated discussion.
Steve came up behind them and swore loudly as he saw Pepper and Fury. Lin raised her eyebrows—it was a sign of how serious things were if Captain America was using language like that.
“Barton, I think you and I should take point on this one,” he said, “I don’t want Stark anywhere near Fury anytime soon, but it’d be good to have someone else from SHIELD on my side.”
Barton nodded. “Everyone else can get back to Stark Tower, get some rest, and we’ll meet them back there. Hopefully it won’t take too much to cool Fury’s jets—I still say we were in the right about this, Hulk or no Hulk.”
“We should probably get you to the med center, Lin,” Steve said, eyeing her, “Make sure you’re okay after all of that yanking around.”
“I’m fine, Captain,” Lin said, “a bit sore, but nothing more than what I’ve handled before.”
“Better safe than sorry,” Steve protested, “That looked like it couldn’t have been good for your joints at all…”
“It’s fine, Captain,” Lin snapped, “a bit of rest and I’ll be good as new. Just like the rest of us, yeah?”
Steve looked at her doubtfully, but backed off. “All right. Keep your phone on, if you go back to your place—who knows how this is going to pan out with Fury.”
Pepper ran to the plane as soon as it touched down, Fury not far behind her. Pepper all but flung herself into Tony’s arms, while Thor and Natasha helped Bruce out into the car that Pepper had waiting for them. Fury turned to Stark, but Barton and Steve stopped him before any words could leave his mouth. The three of them strode towards the SHIELD helicopter, taking up argument that she’d assumed Fury had been having with Pepper.
Amidst all the hubbub, it was easy for Lin to slip away. She hailed a cab outside the airfield, and after nearly too much traffic and honking for her frayed nerves to handle, she trudged slowly up the stairs of her apartment. As she shut the door behind her she slid down against it, her entire body shaking. Contrary to what she had told Steve, she was far from fine—everything ached from when the Hulk had tossed her thirty feet into the air, and every joint in her arms was on fire from the weight of him nearly pulling her down into the ravine. Stupid, it had been so incredibly stupid, why had she not thought to pull the cables up right away? But she’d been right, at least, in telling the Captain there wasn’t anything to be done about it now. There was no permanent damage as far as she could tell, so there was little left for it but time, rest, and as much Advil as she could stomach.
She swallowed the pills heavily and lay down on her bed, still shaking a little. She stared bleakly at her cell phone on the desk, dreading the phone call she had to make, asking herself what the hell she was going to say to General Ross now.
She had felt no fear, today, as she’d faced down Bruce’s Other Guy—that is, no fear for herself. She had suspected for a long time now that she’d be enough of a match for him if it ever came to this, and if she wasn’t, Thor or Iron Man certainly were. But the fear she’d felt for the civilians around them—that was something she couldn’t shake off. How long had it taken them to stop him? They’d gotten lucky today, been on a playing field that worked to their advantage—scattered buildings, ravines all around to deliver the necessary whack on the head. But even as it was, how many people had the Hulk hurt in the process? Nearly all the researchers had wound up in the hospital, one with a spinal injury. A janitor had gotten trapped under the rubble of the science building, and the terrified group of bystanders that had just barely missed the Hulk’s rampage had not escaped Lin’s notice.
Ever since meeting Bruce, she had hoped against hope that SHIELD was right in trusting him, in trusting that he had control over his own situation. She had even started to genuinely believe herself that something like this would never happen, that General Ross and the others in the Army who were worried were only talking out of their asses in a twisted vengeance quest. As long as she’d been with the Avengers, Bruce had always—always—been in control of his transformations. He never came out and said it in explicit terms, but he made it clear to everyone around him that he would not be doing what he did if he did not trust his control and his tenuous relationship with the Other Guy. And she’d had little reason to doubt him, before now: as much as the rest of them might tiptoe around the greenified Bruce, the Hulk had never done anything that was truly out of control, nor had he put innocent lives in danger. He even responded in the most basic senses to directives from Captain America, Iron Man, even occasionally Lin herself.
But this, what she saw today…that control was gone. And even as she knew that this had been one disaster amid over a dozen successes, that the scientists working on the serum had hit far, far too close to home, that Bruce had been pushed over the brink by the lecherous looks in their eyes…she couldn’t stop herself from running through future worst-case scenarios. What was going to happen the next time, when they weren’t on a college campus that was deserted for the summer? What was going to happen if Bruce hulked out, uncontrolled, in New York City? She thought of her friends who’d been uptown that night in Harlem, of the destroyed buildings and lives, of fires that she knew haunted them still. She thought of how much damage the Hulk could have done if they’d been in the city today, what could happen to the men and women she worked with in the 17th Precinct who’d try and stop him, and she shuddered. It was not something she cared to leave to chance and the judgment of a few men. Men who didn’t answer to the Army, or to SHIELD, or to anyone who could hold them accountable.
Still, this was Bruce she was thinking about—compassionate, self-aware Bruce who shared her love of jasmine tea and 1980s action films. And she was thinking about turning him over to General Ross, who, in some ways, she trusted even less. It hadn’t escaped her notice that the Army couldn’t leave Dr. Banner’s failed experiments alone–and she couldn’t even be sure if the General wanted Banner for containment, experimentation, or simply just revenge.
In the end, however, it was the visions of collapsing buildings, of a green blur of rage destroying her city, and of her friends at the 17th Precinct that filled her mind as she picked up the phone.
Stark had pulled up a chair beside the door to Bruce’s apartment and was sitting hunched over a laptop, typing furiously. When he heard Natasha coming his head jerked up, with a look so fiercely mirroring an overprotective guard dog that Natasha almost smiled.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Huh? What, I’m not…I’m just working here, Romanov, you know this is the best corner of the Tower for science, I don’t…” he trailed off as Natasha folded her arms and gave him an unimpressed look.
“Still sleeping,” Tony said, rubbing his hands over his eyes, “He told me once that the more uncontrolled transformations are always the most painful to come off of. And Beifong did make sure he hit his head pretty hard.”
“Have you slept at all?” she asked, leaning against the wall beside him. “Did you even sleep before we went out there?”
“Sleep is for the dead,” Tony replied, “and I’m picking up on major brainwaves here just from proximity. Do you know how many IQ points are stored up in that guy’s head, it’s practically too much to keep to himself…”
“I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he doesn’t need a babysitter,” Natasha said sardonically.
“Please,” he scoffed, “Like he could afford my hourly rates. I’m just here to—“
“You want to be here when he wakes up,” she cut him off. “You want to make sure he doesn’t go running off now that the Other Guy’s broken through his control—make sure he understands that he can’t tear himself apart from the guilt.”
Stark glared at her, but for once he didn’t have a sarcastic retort to throw at her. “Yeah,” he sighed, “Yeah, all of that.”
Natasha shook her head. “Let me take over for awhile here, Stark,” she said, “Go get some rest, and I’ll be here for him when he wakes up.”
Stark snorted. “You couldn’t get someone else to do that job? Someone who doesn’t internally wince every time the word ‘Hulk’ is mentioned?”
That stung, a little, and it rankled her to know he could see through to her weaknesses. Still, he had a fair point.
“Barton and the Cap are off doing damage control at SHIELD, no one’s been able to find Lin since we got back from Ithaca, and…look, do you really want Thor on this detail?” she said. “Tony, look at me. Believe me when I say that I don’t want him leaving any more than you do, okay? I’m not going to do anything to scare him off.”
“But I can relate to him with science,” he protested weakly, and Natasha smirked, knowing she had won.
“Go, Stark,” she said, “I’m not going to let anything happen to him. You’re not going to be able to do anything to help him if you fall asleep in the middle of whatever pep talk you had planned.”
“Now you sound like Pepper,” he grumbled.
“I’ll call her in, if I have to,” Natasha warned.
Stark held up his hands in surrender. “Going! Going. JARVIS, page me as soon as he wakes up, okay?”
She entered the apartment once she made sure Stark was actually in the elevator (and had texted Pepper as an extra failsafe). In true Bruce fashion, he had insisted for one of the smaller apartments –just a little kitchenette and living area, with a bedroom off to the side. The kitchenette surfaces were bare except for a toaster and a tea kettle sitting on the stove. She filled the kettle with water, turned on the stove, and began opening cabinets in search of mugs and tea. She found that the third cabinet was stocked to the brim with more herbs and spices than really fit. Everything was labeled, but she still had to rummage around a bit before she found the lavender and chamomile.
She opened the door softly and peered into the bedroom. He was still sleeping soundly, snoring just a little. He was naked save for a pair of horrifically stretched-out boxers, but Stark had laid out a clean shirt and pair of pants for when he awoke. She leaned back against the wall; still marveling at the fact that Tony Stark of all people had grown to care so much for this man. Asleep, he looked…vulnerable, and impossibly careworn.
When he finally awoke he looked surprised to see her standing there, and not a little embarrassed at the fact that it had been her watching over his de-Hulked mess of a body instead of Tony.
“Hey,” she said softly, “how’re you feeling?”
“Steamrolled,” he said ruefully, “and my head feels like it got smashed between an anvil and Mjolnir.”
“You’re not far off. Here, hopefully this will help a little bit,” she pulled up a chair and handed the mug to him. “You’ve got quite an impressive collection of herbs in there. Didn’t want to experiment, so I just stuck to the basics.”
“Thanks,” he took a careful sip, then gave a little shudder and sank back against the headboard of the bed.
“How many?” he asked, staring into the mug.
“If you’re here, it’s not a question of if I hurt anybody,” he looked up at her, defeated. “It’s how many did I hurt. So, spit it out.”
Natasha sighed. “You put most of the researchers in the hospital. One’s in critical condition, but they’re all stable. Scared the hell out of a college tour group, and practically yanked Beifong’s arms out of her sockets, but no lasting damage. Oh, and you destroyed the building that was housing the lab, but I don’t think anyone here is particularly upset about that part. Seeing as how that was, well, the point.”
He shook his head. “That was, quite possibly, the stupidest idea that Captain America has ever come up with. I should never have gone there, I should have known…”
“How could you have known?” she asked, “You hadn’t had an uncontrolled incident since the helicarrier, there was no reason to think…”
“There was no reason to think that continuing to risk an uncontrolled incident was a good idea! I should have gone back into what I’d been doing before all of this, as soon as Loki left. This whole thing—I stayed because Tony wanted me to, but if he and SHIELD had any sense they wouldn’t be trying to take advantage of a living WMD—“
“Think, Bruce,” Natasha interrupted, harsher than she needed to be, “think back to every time since the helicarrier. Has there been any other time that you’ve unleashed the Other Guy when you haven’t been completely, 100% in control?”
“So nice of you to notice,” Bruce muttered bitterly, “But that doesn’t mean a damn thing in the face of all this—“
“This was a trigger,” Natasha interjected, “This was group of idiots contemplating doing to other people what’s been done to you. Does that negate all of the other times?”
He didn’t answer, merely put the tea mug down on the bedside table and grabbed the shirt laid out at the foot of the bed. He began buttoning it methodically, determinedly avoiding her gaze.
She sat next to him on the bed and gripped his shoulder. He tried to shrug out of her hold, but she wasn’t going to give up on this, not now.
“Bruce…you can’t do this to yourself. So, you’ve realized what the limits of your control are. You’ve realized that there are certain situations where no dam will hold him back. But that doesn’t take away everything you’ve worked toward these last few months. It doesn’t take away all the good you’ve done, with him. And you can’t let it.”
“You can be damn sure that SHIELD is going to let it,” he said. “And the military, when they find out about this? They’re not going to let sleeping dogs lie, Natasha.”
“You really think this is going to alter things with SHIELD?” Natasha glared. “I told you the first day I met you, and it hasn’t changed—Nick Fury trusts you. Tony Stark trusts you. And I can’t speak for the rest of the people we work with, but I trust you, too.”
He looked down.
“Why are you doing this?” Bruce asked. “Why now? Of all the times—“ his voice broke, “why is now when you finally decide you’re okay with me?”
Natasha considered him. It was a fair question to ask, but the last thing she wanted to do was answer—it had so much to do with her own demons and her past, doors she’d locked a long time ago, never daring to look back. And again, it was that mildly irritating way in which Clint’s words came back to haunt her long after the original context was lost:
When something’s been done to make your body different, your mind—the most important moment is when people actually believe you’ve got a grip on your life again. We know that better than anyone.
It broke every single rule in her book to reveal as much to Bruce. But she knew, too, that this was the only shot she had to make him fully understand.
“Because I know what it’s like,” she said finally, “I know what it means to have your body altered, changed in a way so that you can’t even remember how it used to be. I know what it’s like to look at the people who engineered it and know they’ll do it again. And I’ve got enough red on my ledger to wipe even yours clean. But…people trust me, to do what I do. They trusted me to learn to work with what’s been done to me, to work past it. And you can go on about being greener, and bigger, but there’s really no difference between you, me, or anyone else on this half-assed excuse for a team. It just…took longer than it should have for that connection to click. We can’t all be as quick on the uptake as you or Stark, after all.”
He let out a small laugh. “Tony’s really got you on the runaround if you think he’s quick on the uptake with anything.”
“Hey, I was his PA for three months. I’d like to think that means I’ve got him on the runaround from here to eternity.”
“Well, someone’s got to,” he laughed again, just a little, and met Natasha’s eyes for the first time.
“Natasha…” he stopped. “Thanks. I…I don’t…”
“Hey,” she said, “I get it. Believe me, I do. And you’re welcome.”
“Just so that we’re both clear and on the same page,” General Ross said over the phone, “contrary to the ambivalence of your original reports, you believe that the group known as the Avengers, Dr. Banner in particular, is too far outside of SHIELD control to be trusted on their own?”
“Yes, sir. After everything I’ve seen today, General—“ she winced even as she said it, “I think that the Army can consider the Avengers Initiative, as currently assembled, to be a clear and present danger to the city at large.”
“I see.” Ross replied, his tone of triumph barely concealed. “Well, Lieutenant Beifong, this all puts us in a rather difficult position, doesn’t it? ”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, sir,” Lin said, “I thought you said if ever I were to you’d contact members of the government and they’d be able to take care of it from there.”
“Yes, Lieutenant, but that was meant to happen before Dr. Banner made a ruckus of himself and drew out the entire Army’s attention,” Ross said, “He’s a coward, and likely as anything to run whenever he knows he’s attracted attention. And he’s got SHIELD at his back, defenses all up now—no, there’s not going to be much the government can do to persuade him to come voluntarily.”
“So what do you intend to do?” Lin asked.
“Well, there’s certainly not much I can do,” Ross said, “at least, not now from where I’m standing. But there are certainly several things you can do, Beifong.”
Lin grimaced, a hard knot forming in the pit of her stomach. “And what might those things consist of, General?”
“Well, as I said, Banner will come neither willingly or quietly, and he’s evaded our…larger displays of force before. Now, if someone were to drug him, tranquilize him so that the beast can’t escape…then it would be much, much easier to bring him in. Now, I can think of only seven or eight people in the world close enough to accomplish that task, but fortunately, you are on that list.”
Lin sank back down onto her bed.
“Sir,” she said, “Even if I manage to get Banner in my custody, do you really think the rest of them are going to react well to that? And how exactly do you expect me to get past Stark’s AI?” She realized she was absently bending her lamp into contortions –a nervous habit she thought she’d dropped years ago.
“He trusts you, doesn’t he? This was part of the point of getting you into the Avengers Initiative in the first place, Beifong. So that if it ever came to this we’d have someone effectively operating on the inside.”
“Sir, I really don’t think that this is the brightest idea—“
“Might I remind you of your consistent laziness and insubordination throughout this mission, Beifong?” Ross snapped, “If you were Army you’d be court-marshaled by now, and don’t think I haven’t considered the thought anyway. Besides, you yourself said that you believe Banner is a danger to society. What on earth, then, would stop you from apprehending him and making sure he can no longer do any harm?”
Lin didn’t answer.
“Go back to Stark Tower and get Banner out, Beifong,” Ross said, “There’ll be an Army van waiting two blocks uptown to take him into custody when you’ve got him. And make sure you report to the encrypted channels on that two-way I gave to you. Understood?”
“Understood, sir.” She heard the beep as Ross hung up, and she placed the phone down carefully.
She took a deep breath, two, before she grabbed her phone back off her desk and flung it hard against the wall.
As she had expected, Natasha found the rest of them in the penthouse living area. Tony was gone, but Clint and Steve had returned from SHIELD, and were talking quietly in the corner with Thor. Pepper was behind the bar, making herself a vodka martini, her face ranging in emotions from worried to angry to simply tired.
She took a seat at the bar by Pepper. “Is Tony actually asleep?” she asked.
“Like the dead,” Pepper replied, “I didn’t even have to argue it. I don’t know what you said to him…”
“I threatened to call you in, actually,” she said.
Pepper gave a brief self-satisfied smile, before downing the martini with a grimace. “How’s Bruce?”
Natasha sighed. “Okay, I think. He’s not going to stop beating himself up for it anytime soon, but I don’t think he’s going to be running back into hiding on us either.”
Pepper shook her head. “I should certainly hope not. God…from everything Steve’s told me, it’s almost as if they were purposefully trying to get the Other Guy come out, just to see what it was like.”
“Wouldn’t put it past them,” Natasha said darkly. She turned to Steve and Clint. “What’d Fury have to say to the two of you?”
“A lot of curse words,” Steve said, “and not much else good. Mostly involving my judgment being called into question and threatening to take all of us off active duty.”
“I tried to point out that they couldn’t technically ground anyone except for you, me or Lin,” Clint put in helpfully. “And that…might not have been the best idea.”
Natasha put her face in her hands. Leave it to Barton… “Tell me he’s not actually going to make good on that threat.”
“Don’t worry, Nat…as much as he’d like to, he really can’t,” Clint said. “He needs all hands on deck, right about now. Besides, I think that once he stops being angry he is going to actually appreciate that we stopped them. One way…or the other.”
The elevator door pinged outside and Lin came in, looking as exhausted and troubled as she had on the flight back from Ithaca. Natasha regarded her, curious. Of all the people to be shaken by the events of the past few days, Lin was the last one she’d expected…
“Hey,” Steve greeted her, “Where’d you get off to? We’ve been trying to call you…”
“Phone broke in the fight,” she answered brusquely, “Didn’t realize it ‘til after I’d gotten home and rested up a bit. What’s the situation here?”
They filled her in on everything they’d been discussing.
“So what do you think is going to happen now?” Natasha asked. “Bruce won’t say it straight-out, but he’s terrified that the military is going to come take him away now that the Other Guy’s made such a noticeable mess.”
“They won’t do it,” Steve said, with a certainty Natasha wished she shared. “Besides, with Stark and SHIELD at his back, there’s nothing they can do. Fury may be angry at us, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to let one accident change anything. They can’t try and take Bruce away now, not after everything else he’s done for the world.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, “ Clint said, “SHIELD’s only barely been able to keep the Army off of Bruce’s back since he’s been out in the open again. And as Stark is so fond of reminding us, he and Bruce don’t work for SHIELD, so they can only protect him so much. The Army thinks Bruce is a liability—don’t give me that look, Natasha, you know they’ve only been holding back because something like this hasn’t happened yet— and there’s not much that can hold them back from showing up to Stark Tower with as many tanks as they want.”
“Let them try,” Pepper snapped, her face twisted in anger. “Let them try to trespass, break, and enter into a privately-owned building in the city. Let them try and run up against JARVIS, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the CEO of one of the most powerful corporations in the world. And her lawyers.”
Natasha eyed her, startled by the vehemence and emotion coming from Pepper, normally so composed. “Tell us how you really feel, Pepper.”
“Shut up,” Pepper said as she brought out her laptop and began typing an email, her motions smooth as ever. “I’ve had it with the military-industrial complex trying to butt in and mess up our lives. And I know they haven’t caused nearly as much pain to Tony and me as they have to Bruce. It took nearly three weeks of living here before he could wrap his head around the notion that we actually wanted him. Lawyers. A whole fleet of them.”
“In any case, I don’t think it’s going to hurt us to be too cautious,” Clint said, “Pepper’s right, it’d be stupid of them to actually try a full-scale assault of Stark Tower, but I still wouldn’t put it past them to try. And there’s still the world of hurt they could do to us outside the Tower. I don’t think either of them are going to like this, but maybe we should think about getting Stark to take Bruce out to his place in California for a couple of weeks? Lay low, wait for this all to blow over?”
“Wouldn’t they see that coming, though?” Lin asked, “And…” her voice trailed off. “And wouldn’t it be easier for the Army to get at him, one house in the open like that?”
“Have you ever been out to Stark’s house in Malibu?” Clint retorted, “You think this place is tripped out in security and weapons—“
“Stop,” Natasha interrupted softly, “you all are thinking too big, and too dumb. You’re forgetting that the Army has been hunting Bruce for years, far longer than any of us have known him for. They tried the full-scale assault, they tried the stealth commando teams, none of those worked. The only time they ever actually captured him was by convincing him to surrender willingly—something he’s definitely not going to do now. If they really are going to go after him this time, they’re going to be going for something far more creative. And probably far more sinister.”
Bruce emerged, bleary-eyed and haunted, just as the sun was starting to go down. He offered to cook everyone Indian food for dinner (a culinary contrition, Lin could only assume), and Natasha, to everyone’s surprise, offered to help. He tried to apologize verbally to Lin for the Other Guy slingshotting her into the air, but she brushed it off with a little shrug and a smile, telling him that she’d had far worse. The meal was cautiously peaceful—the tension wasn’t gone, not really, but everyone seemed determined to talk only in terms of lighthearted anecdotes and stories. Mostly, Lin thought, everyone else wanted to try and get Bruce’s mind off of the events and potential repercussions of everything that had happened in Ithaca. When Bruce tried to ask Steve how the meeting with Fury had gone, he proclaimed that business-talk was officially off limits for the night.
“Nothing we can do about it now,” he said as he helped himself to more chicken curry, “let’s just try and relax tonight, huh? We can get a couple more Best of the Eighties movies in or something.”
Lin helped Clint with the cleanup, while the rest of them made their way over to the den that housed the flatscreen TV. Steve perused the shelf of DVDs and declared that he wanted to finally see if Raiders of the Lost Ark lived up to its hype, though Lin suspected he did this only because Bruce had expressed such a fondness for it a few days before. Clint started up a game of poker, which Lin, Tony, and Natasha joined. Lin was just barely paying attention, however, and began losing spectacularly to the three of them.
She didn’t know if she was arousing any suspicion from the Hawk or the Black Widow with her pensive silence, but there was little she could do about it now. Try as she might to distract herself with the movie or cards, she could not take her mind off of what she would be doing after they all went to sleep. She wasn’t sure which prospect she dreaded more—that she might fail, or that she might succeed.
Finally, after the double feature of Raiders and Temple of Doom (Bruce had insisted on the latter, much to Tony and then Steve’s disgust), they all began trickling off to bed. Steve had pulled Natasha and Lin aside before dinner, and they had agreed to spend the night, just in case anything happened or they needed to be called together right away. Lin was relieved to realize that Tony’d put the two of them on separate floors. She wouldn’t put it past Natasha to be woken up in her sleep by even the most cautious sneaking around.
She waited a good hour and a half after she’d said goodnight to everyone before she got her gear ready. The biggest obstacle to this operation was obviously going to be JARVIS, but if she could somehow manage to cut the power to Stark Tower she’d be free of even the AI’s watchful…well, not eyes, but close enough. Of course, the Tower ran on self-sustaining energy thanks to Tony’s arc reactor tech, something that she knew next to nothing about. She doubted simply throwing a switch on a generator would be enough to cut the power.
But the generator was made of metal, and even the most self-sustaining power source couldn’t do much if its casing was warped beyond repair.
She had spent enough time with Barton in the past weeks to know that the ventilation system in Stark Towers was easily accessible, and the floor plans fairly basic. She wriggled up through the vent in her room, praying that Stark afforded his guests enough privacy to not install security cameras in the bedrooms. She moved, as slowly and silently as she could, down the twenty-two floors of ventilation and came out in the basement, looking around in triumph to see that she had correctly emerged in the room with the power generator.
She hid in the shadows, pressed against the wall, as she observed her target. It glowed an eerie blue in the dark, and she knew that she would have to completely mottle it to be sure that the power was cut. She pushed down with her foot and up with her hands, manipulating the metal that surrounded the generator. It creaked as it bent in, out, and finally up as Lin yanked it off the floor, disconnecting it from whatever held it in place. Sparks flew and flickered, and the emergency lighting around her suddenly went dark.
She knew she wouldn’t have much time now. She couldn’t even be sure that Stark didn’t have a triple-failsafe backup generator somewhere (wouldn’t put it past him), but even if the power stayed out, it wasn’t going to take long for someone to notice that the brightest beacon in the city had just gone dark. She ran to the elevator, bent the doors open, and leaped up through the top hatch. She grabbed the elevator cables and flew up the shaft, stopping at the floor where she knew Bruce lived.
She bent the elevator doors open once more, and peered out slowly. On this floor, at least, it appeared that no alarm bells had been raised yet. She crept down the hall to the apartment that belonged to Bruce. She felt out behind the door and bent the lock silently, creeping in as quietly as she could.
She’d almost expected him to jerk awake the moment she entered the apartment—he had spent years evading the Army, after all, and had to have the honed instincts of a cat by now. But he remained motionless and asleep as she approached him. The fight must have taken even more out of him than she’d originally thought.
She stood over him, holding the syringe with the tranquilizers in it, barely breathing, hardly believing what she was about to do. Here he looked so human, so exposed, and it was almost impossible to reconcile him with the creature who carried so much potential for destruction. She almost wished he was closer in his human form to the Hulk—it wouldn’t make her feel as if she committing such a gross act of betrayal. She tried to remind herself that she was doing this out of loyalty—loyalty to her friends, loyalty to the people of the city she served, loyalty to the organization that had employed her long before SHIELD. But she felt a loyalty to Bruce too, in a different way, and to the rest of the men and women she’d fought alongside for the past month. They’d looked out for her in battle as she’d looked out for them, had trusted her so readily…
But she’d never deserved that trust anyway. This was her job, and though the people she reported to were far from admirable, that was the way it had always been. And she knew protecting her city and the people who lived in it was far more important than her distaste for one man or fondness for another.
“I’m sorry, Bruce,” she whispered as she jabbed the needle into his neck. His eyes opened wide in surprise and fear, flashed a brilliant green. He struggled against her hold, but the drugs did their work quickly, and his eyes returned to their normal brown as they glazed over.
She lifted him up from the bed—he was heavy, but she’d expected that—and dragged him over to the window. She threw him over her shoulder in a loose fireman’s hold, and used her cables to rappel down the building, bringing out her two-way to alert the Army that her target had been acquired, and she would need assistance getting him into the van.
Natasha was jerked awake by the sound of alarms blaring sharply through the building. She tried to turn the lights on, but nothing happened when she flipped the switch, and as she flung the door to the hallway open she saw that the entire floor of the tower was only lighted by the dim glow of emergency lights. Oh you have got to be kidding me…
She’d fallen asleep in her clothes, but she still had to fumble around in the dark to get her boots back on. She reached for her phone and didn’t see any messages, but sent out a text to Stark, Clint, Steve, Lin and Bruce all at once: “what the hell is going on?”
Stark responded first. “Penthouse. Now.”
The elevators were still down, so she raced up the fifteen flights of stairs to the penthouse to find Steve and Clint already there, fully dressed, with Pepper still in her pajamas. Stark, Thor, Lin, and Bruce were all missing.
“Where’s Stark?” she asked.
“In the basement,” Pepper replied. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a problem with the power. He’s trying to figure out what’s going on…even JARVIS is out.”
“Thor and Lin?”
“I am here, Lady Natasha,” Thor came up from behind them, fully armored, his face grave. “I do not understand where this loss of light comes from, but I like it not.”
“Bruce?” she asked, dreading what the answer would be.
“I don’t know,” Clint said, looking worried, “He’s the only one who hasn’t been in the phone traffic. I got mass texts from you, Steve, and Tony all at once. Lin’s phone’s broken, so it makes sense she hasn’t checked in yet, but…”
“I’ll got get him,” Steve said, clearly thinking along the same lines that they were. “the alarm probably didn’t wake him up, you know how much ruckus in this building he’s slept through…”
But Steve returned five minutes later, his eyes burning with frustration and anger.
“He’s not there,” he said, “but the window to his bedroom was wide open, and it looks like there might have been a struggle.”
Natasha and Clint let out simultaneous curses in Russian.
“Army?” Pepper asked, her face pale.
Steve shook his head. “I don’t know. But whoever it was, they planned this out well. With the power out, even JARVIS wouldn’t have been able to stop them from waltzing in and grabbing Bruce.”
“They must have drugged him, or something,” Pepper said, “There’s no way they’d be able to persuade him to go in without a struggle, not after everything they’ve done to him…”
“But there’s no way in hell they could have gotten in here so quietly,” Clint countered, “You said it yourself, they’re facing a mass security system and all of us, even if they had killed the power…”
“And how could they have managed to kill the power from the inside?” Natasha asked. “There’s no way that anyone from the Army could possibly have gotten into the Tower, unless…”
She trailed off as she realized who among them was missing. No…Lin couldn’t, there was no reason for her…
But she thought back now to the events of the past two days, the odd reactions that she’d hardly noticed at the time: the barely perceptible look of horror on Lin’s face when the scientists had mentioned General Ross, her noted absence in the hours following their return, her tense silence all evening…
She swore again and turned on her heel.
“Call Stark,” she shouted back to Clint as she ran back towards the stairs. “Tell him that once he gets JARVIS back online—if he can fix a metalbent mass of the power structures—get JARVIS to run all the security cameras around the Tower, all of them. Then call Fury and tell him we’ve been compromised.”
“Natasha, what…?” Clint ran after her, “What the hell are you talking about? Where are you going?”
“Tell you when I get there,” she said as the elevator door closed. “Meantime, you’d better hope to hell I’m wrong.”
She ran down the stairs back to her bedroom, loaded up a pack with as many knives and weapons that she could fit on her person. She could feel her focus narrowing to a single pinpoint, blocking out, at least for the time being, the reeling betrayal and self-hatred for having not seen through Beifong, for having been stupid enough to have let her guard down around her.
The SHIELD-issued car Clint kept in the parking garage was there as always, and Natasha jumped into it and sped downtown. Lin had brought her by her apartment once before, a couple of weeks back, and she still remembered the address down to the apartment number.
She had no idea where they’d taken Bruce, but if her suspicions were correct, Beifong would. She wondered, however, how much good her typical form of manipulative interrogation would do. Lin was so painfully straightforward that she seemed impervious to such things, and she wasn’t going to slip up in the same way as those Natasha normally dealt with. She sighed. Threatening with blunt force was more what she was in the mood for at the moment anyway. Send a cop to catch a cop.
She raced up the stairs and kicked the door in, not caring that she was fulfilling every stereotype in the book. Lin jumped up from a duffel bag she was packing and backed away from it as she saw Natasha advancing toward her, gun leveled at her chest. She’d taken off her armor, Natasha noticed, and her cables were nowhere in sight.
“You know,” she said, working to keep her voice conversational, “Of all the people you could have made a move against, Banner was really a poor choice. I mean, Captain America would have garnered more attention, but you’ve just broken up the greatest science romance in the history of the twenty-first century. And you’ve got Pepper’s motherly hackles raised...”
Beifong eyed the gun warily. “You know that’s not going to do you a damn bit of good against me, right?”
“Worth a shot,” Natasha replied, “Quite literally, at this point.”
“Natasha, I—“ she shook her head, “I know you’re not going to listen to any explanation I’ve got, but if you could just—“
“Save it,” she snapped, “Pity pleas might work on Rogers or even Barton, but they’re not going to do you a bit of good with me.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Well, what I want is to break you down slowly into an unspeakable number of body parts,” Natasha said dryly, “But that’s neither here nor there.” There was so much more she wanted to say to this woman, so much anger coursing through her that she wanted Beifong to see. But there was little time, and it wasn’t worth the wasted breath.
“Where’s Banner, Beifong?” she asked, “What did you do to him?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t play games with me, Lin,” Natasha kept the gun pointed at her but did a mental inventory of her other weaponry, ready to spring. “There’s no one else in the Tower who could have broken the power like that, Banner’s gone, so how are you telling me you don’t know where he is?”
“I don’t know!” she snapped, “I tranqued him in the Tower and got him out down the side of the building. But then I handed him over to the Army officials, and they—sped him off, somewhere. They wouldn’t tell me where.”
Natasha closed her eyes, briefly.
“You tranqued him,” she said slowly, “You tranqued him and handed him over to Army officials. God, you are—I’ve got to hand it to you, Lin, I did not pick you out for such a callous fool, but you’ve gone past even Stark in that category. Or you’re just more pitiless than that General you report to.”
Lin at least had the decency to look uncomfortable at that last bit.
“What the hell else was I supposed to do?” she shot back, “The only reason the NYPD put me with you at all was to monitor the Avengers Initiative from the inside,”—it was all Natasha could do not to wince, god, why hadn’t she seen it before—“and call them in if I thought it was too unstable or uncontrollable a force. And after yesterday? There’s nothing else left for it, and you know it.”
“No,” Natasha said, “No, you don’t get to decide that. What makes you think you have anything approaching the authority and knowledge to make that choice? The people who employ you? The military’s no more entitled than you are to make those decisions.”
“You were there, Natasha!” Lin shot back, “You saw what he did, what he could have done…he doesn’t answer to anyone, none of you do. It’s nothing better than vigilante justice, and how are we supposed to trust that the next time it’s not the entirety of Midtown that’s leveled?”
“We trust him,” she bit out, “we trust that he knows what he’s doing, just the way we trust Stark to wander around with that damned suit or Thor with the lightning. And you don’t hand him over to Ross of all people because he slips once!”
Lin snorted. “You’re one to talk…the entire time I’ve known you you’ve barely been able to talk to him for fear of the Other Guy in the room. You fear him more than anyone else living in that tower.”
“Difference is, I’m smart enough not let that cloud my judgment,” Natasha said, pushing back the memory of her reaction to Banner after her interrogation of Loki. “It doesn’t matter what I think, how I feel about him. What matters is that people far smarter than the both of us trust him, that he’s saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and that living with a time bomb is preferable to having that time bomb in the hands of the U.S. military!”
Natasha shook her head. “Have you even thought to consider what they’re going to do to him, Lin? Are you really that naïve?”
“They’re just going to keep him on an Army base, Natasha,” Lin said, “They’re only going to—“
“They’re not going to simply confine him there,” she interrupted, “Do you really think Ross is so above revenge? They are going to torture him, because they can, and they’re going to experiment on him, because they won’t rest until they’ve gone down every avenue with this super-soldier weapon. And then, maybe—maybe—after all of that they’re throw him into a drugged-up solitary for the rest of his life. But I can guarantee you they’re not in this to get him off the streets.”
Something that might have been doubt flickered across Lin’s face, but it was quickly replaced by a steely resolve.
“So,” Natasha said, her finger closing in on the trigger of the gun, “For the last time. Where are they keeping Banner?”
“I don’t know, Natasha,” Lin said, in a tone both pained and defiant, “and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if I did.”
She pulled the trigger on the gun, but Lin was too quick. The bullet kicked back and white-hot pain exploded against Natasha’s hand. She swore and threw the gun away from her, launching herself at Lin.
She knew it wasn’t going to be any use to try her knives, so she stuck with her body, throwing as many kicks and punches at Lin at she could muster. The fury of her attack kept Lin from doing much other than desperately throwing a lamp or two at Natasha, but there was surprisingly little metal in the bedroom, and what few other appliances Lin was able to throw at Natasha she could easily dodge or bat away. She was enough of a match for Lin to keep her at bay, but having to dually concentrate on trading blows and dodging the bits of metal flying at her head meant she was getting nowhere.
She ducked as a metal water bottle came flying at her head, and suddenly Lin was on her, throwing her to the ground with the full force of her body. Natasha struck out with her hand, attempting to aim for Lin’s eyes, but she turned her head at the last minute and her nails raked against the side of Lin’s face. She yelled and sprung away, bleeding freely from the two long gouges in the side of her cheek. Natasha jumped back up to her feet and slammed Lin against the wall, but she wriggled out from under her hold and dove for the duffel bag top of the bed, drawing the metal cables out from the bag. Natasha dodged out of the way, but the room was too small to evade the snaking cables for long. They wrapped around her wrists and yanked her back against the wall. She looked down in horror as she felt her two long knives come free of their sheathes, and as Lin moved they stabbed themselves into the wall on either side of her wrists, bending to hold her in place against the wall.
Lin jerked the cables free, but the knives were doing more than enough of a job holding Natasha in place. She couldn’t struggle against them for fear of slicing her hands open. She looked up and gave Lin a cold smile.
“Vigilante justice at its finest,” she said. “It really is a shame—you could have done so much good with us, so much more than you’ll ever do for the Army or the police. But you’re so blinded by the letter of the law that you can’t see anything past it.”
Lin looked at Natasha with more than a slight tint of regret.
“You know,” Natasha continued, “we’re going to find him, with or without you. We’re going to get him, and we’re going to bring him back. And after we do, I will come back and I will kill you, personally. Believe that that is a promise.”
Lin gave her a long last look, then turned and walked out the door.
Lin walked rapidly through the streets, struggling to calm herself. She’d meant to get on the subway to South Ferry, lay low in her ex’s house in Staten Island until she got her next set of orders, but her fight with Natasha still had her heart racing. She knew a slow ride in the subway was only going to result in her killing something.
It was late enough—or early enough—by now that businesses were starting to open, and she ducked into a Starbucks bathroom, the employees giving her a wide berth as they took in her frenzied state. She looked into the mirror, wincing as she examined the gouges Natasha had dug into her face. The cuts were deep, but she’d left her first aid kit behind in her haste to leave the apartment. Until she managed to get to a pharmacy, there was little she could do other than rinse them out and hope for the best. She splashed water from the sink on her face and flinched at the sting, closing her eyes as she tried to parse out her swirling thoughts.
She’d felt regret, and sorrow for what she’d had to do to Bruce, but she’d had no room for doubt once the decision had been made. She’d been certain that at the end of the day she’d done the right thing, even as the execution of the plan had left her feeling lower than the criminals she worked to catch. But Natasha’s words had planted far too many seeds of doubt in her mind for her to be comfortable with. She knew that the people she reported to were far from savory characters. But in the end she’d still trusted that the Army wanted Bruce held for the same reasons she did—to keep the Hulk from wreaking any further destruction. After everything that had happened, she couldn’t believe anything else.
But perhaps that had been as naively foolish of her as Natasha had suggested. Her mother certainly would have thought so. But then, her mother had never approved of her joining the force in the first place, so Lin had never counted her opinion on such matters for much.
The two-way she’d been issued by the Army buzzed, and she held it up to her ear, taking care to hold it away from her right cheek.
“Lieutenant Beifong,” General Ross’s voice came in on the other end, “I wanted to report that the rest of the operation has been carried out successfully. Banner has been safely delivered into custody. I admit, Beifong, I’ve had more than enough doubts about you, but you delivered where it counts. Job well done, job very well done.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, careful to keep her voice level. “Do you have any further orders for me?”
“Not at the moment,” he replied, “though I understand that you might not be feeling particularly safe in New York at the moment. I can assure you that we will be working with the city government to keep the rest of the Avengers off of your back and get you reintegrated back into the police force as soon as possible.”
“Thank you, General,” she said again. She paused. She couldn’t just let this go now, not after everything she’d been through, not with Natasha’s words lingering in her head.
“So what happens now?” she asked Ross, “Are you going to use him to try and tweak that super-solder serum?”
“Beg pardon?” Ross sounded far too innocent for his own good.
“Come now,” she said, praying that she was going out on the right limb, “after that disaster in Cornell, do you think I’d believe that you only want Banner to keep him isolated from the public? You’ve got a living science experiment on your hands now.”
“You’re smarter than I gave you credit for, Beifong,” he said at last, “Obviously keeping him isolated is…far more of a priority for us, but we can’t deny that we’ve been taking dual advantage of our situation.”
“If it’s not too much trouble, General,” she said, “I’d like to be allowed to come out and see him. See what you all have got planned for this.”
“I thought you’d be itching to get back on duty—“
“You said yourself, General, I’m not exactly safe in New York at the moment,” she said, “And I’ve come this far. I’d like to see for myself the end results of my mission.”
“Very well, Beifong,” he replied at last, “I’m heading out there myself at 0800. If you can get to the airfield without picking up any tails, there’ll be someone there waiting to take you.”
It only took them a few hours to get where they were going. Lin tried to look out the window to determine their location, but her aerial geography had never been very good and Ross wasn’t disclosing the exact location. The base was deep underground, with more labs than she would have thought a military base capable of. He finally led her to a series of small cells, each with the types of two-way mirrors Lin was so familiar with from the precinct station. He stopped at the last one, and Lin fought to keep her expression neutral as she saw the state that Bruce was in.
He was awake, but only in the barest sense of the term. It was clear that he was still drugged, and there was blood dripping from an angry raised gash on the side of his forehead. He was wearing the same clothes he had when she’d taken him, and judging from the various tears and stains it looked as though they’d injured him in other places, too.
“You don’t have a special Hulk-ified cell for him, General?” she asked finally.
“We do,” he responded, “but it’s unnecessary for now. We want to be able to observe him, and we’re keeping him on enough drugs that he’s not going to be capable of transforming. At least, not until we want him to.”
“You’re going to try and trigger transformations?” Keep the Hulk from running loose, my ass…
“We want to test his invulnerability properties,” he said, “There’s a rumor floating around that the Hulk literally won’t let him die, something that seemed to be proven well enough when he was in Harlem. But we want to test it in a controlled environment—find out if the indestructible properties lie in his true body or only in the Hulk form. He feels pain in his human form; we’ve been able to ascertain that much.”
Lin didn’t respond.
“A bit much for you to stomach, Lieutenant?” Ross asked.
“Not at all,” she said. If ever you could master your poker face, Lin Beifong, she thought, let now be the time...
“So what’s the plan for him right now?” she asked, “Are you just sticking with trying to figure out what makes all his parts tick, or do you have more in mind with him and the serum?”
“Well, we’ve got his blood, so we can get our scientists to examine that, try to figure out where things worked and where things went wrong with the serum,” he answered. “Ideally, we’d have Captain America’s blood, but we’ve been informed by highers-up that his DNA the equivalent of a national landmark…therefore Banner will have to do.”
She masked her face into an icy calm, spoke not a word of protest as General Ross described his plans to her. She knew her good standing with the General hung only by a thread—by the fact that she had, for all her faults, successfully captured the Hulk. And she knew that keeping that good standing could be crucial if she were to act on any of the thoughts running through her head now.
For she knew now that she had been horrifically, terrifyingly wrong.
Predictably, it was Clint who found her in Lin’s apartment, about an hour after she’d been pinned to the wall. She’d tried in the first minutes to free herself, but the knives were bent so tightly around her wrists that there was simply no way without making a bloody mess of her hands. Her right hand was already in enough pain from the jammed gun, and the last thing she needed was to make them worse.
“You know, I’d say I’m going to start charging for all the times I bail you out,” Clint said as he carefully bent back the knives, “but then you’d start charging me for the same thing and I think it’d wind up costing me more.”
“Damn right,” she snorted as she came free, rubbing her hand where the backfired gun had burned her. It didn’t look like it was much worse than a first-degree—blistering and painful, but she’d gotten the gun out of her hands quickly enough for it not to have done too much damage.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It was Beifong,” she said, “She drugged Bruce and got him out of the Tower, handed him over to the Army. I tried to stop her, find out where they’d taken Bruce, but I got nothing out of her. I think she was right when she said she didn’t know where they’d taken him. And, for the record, don’t ever try and shoot a metalbender. It doesn’t end well.”
“Shit,” Clint gave a low whistle. “Didn’t see that one coming.”
“Yeah, I think that’s the last time Fury’s allowed to hire anyone from the NYPD,” Natasha said wryly, but as she sat down, she reflected that there wasn’t much point in putting this on Fury, when she didn’t have anyone to blame but herself. Guilt was a useless emotion, one she could shove aside easily, but for right now, with just Clint in the room with her…if she had only kept her guard up, if she hadn’t been so distracted by her concerns with Banner, if she hadn’t allowed her initial suspicions to be overridden by mere sentiment…
“Oh, no you don’t,” Clint sat down beside her, “Not in a million years you don’t. How the hell were you supposed to know, Nat?”
“She was my responsibility,” she replied, “Fury assigned her to me to make sure she was trustworthy enough, it was my job to parse out if she had the potential for something like this…”
“You had no reason not to trust her,” Clint said, “None of us did. Her story checked out, she had nothing to hide, she backed us up on missions, time and again. She played us all good—so maybe we’re all idiots, but this doesn’t come back to just you.”
She shook her head. “Just add one more to the ledger,” she said, “Two big fat giant Bs.”
He squeezed her uninjured hand. “We’re gonna get him back, Nat. You know none of us will rest until we do. Come on…let’s get back to the Tower, get you cleaned up. Stark’s trying to reach his Army friend Rhodey, see if he can squeeze anything out for us.”
But when they got back to the Tower it was to find Stark cursing out Rhodey on the phone, with Pepper trying to persuade him that anger was going to get him nowhere. By the looks of it, Thor was siding with Stark, Steve with Pepper.
“It’s not his fault, Tony,” Pepper said as he finally hung up with a “fuck-you-very-much.” “He’s not high enough up in this, and you know he’s got enough enemies within the military. He said he was going to do everything they can…”
“Yeah, fat lot of help that does for us now,” Tony snapped, bringing up five different screens in front of him. “But JARVIS is back online, no thanks to the hellbender.” None of them had taken very well to the news about Lin.
“Where’s SHIELD in all this?” Natasha asked, turning to Clint, “What did Fury say when you called him?”
“They’re all working on locating Banner,” Clint said, “likely doubly so, once Fury finds out about Beifong—you know how he hates being played. But same problems as Rhodey, it sounds like. The Army’s keeping a tight lid on this one—the intel’s just not going to come to us easily.”
“Let’s see if they’ve done as good a job keeping a lid on it in cyberspace as they have in real space.” The look in Tony’s eyes made Natasha suddenly very, very glad he was on their side—cold, calculating, furious, and manic all at once. “JARVIS, run every hacking program you’ve got, and tell me you can get it through Army encryption.”
Ross hadn’t told her where exactly this army base was, but he must have trusted her enough, because he didn’t try and stop her from leaving with a group of off-duty Army grunts who wanted to go into town for drinks. It took them about a half-hour of driving to get to the nearest town, and the welcome sign as they drove in told her she was somewhere in southeast Texas. The bar they were in had a pay phone in the back, but she waited until her companions were busy with pool and darts to slip out and make her phone call.
She still had Clint, Tony, Steve, and Natasha’s numbers, but she figured calling Captain America would be her safest bet. She couldn’t imagine that any of them would want to listen to her after what she’d done, but Steve had a good enough heart that he’d be willing, at the minimum, to hear her out. At least, she hoped.
She looked around her as she dialed the number, counting on the noise of the bar to drown out her conversation. She knew she was taking a risk, making this call, but she really wasn’t sure what options were left to her. The phone rang once, twice, three times before Steve picked up.
“Captain?” she said, “It’s Lin Beifong.”
“Don’t hang up,” she said quickly, “I’ve got information that you’re going to want to hear.”
He sighed. “Better talk fast then, Lieutenant.”
“I know where he is,” she said quietly, “right down to the cell location. I can get in there and get him out easily enough on my own, but I’m going to need help once we’re out of the facility. It’s a fully loaded army base and even I can’t take on all of that unless I’ve got cover. And…I have a feeling Bruce isn’t going to take too well to only me rescuing him.”
There was a long pause, some muffled conversation on the other end.
“Where are you, Lieutenant?”
“Some nowhere town in southeast Texas,” she said, “the base is about thirty miles north of here, most of it deep underground. It’s heavily guarded, but I’ve got clearance to get inside.”
“Why should we believe you, Lin?” Steve snapped, “After everything, after all of this…why should I believe a word you say?”
Lin bit her lip. “I messed up, Captain. It’s the understatement of the century, but I had my priorities messed up and when we were in Ithaca I freaked..I got scared,” she amended, wondering if Steve had picked up on that phrase yet. “Scared of what he could do. But I’ve seen him. I’ve seen what they’re doing to him, and I can’t…tell Natasha…tell Natasha that she was right. About everything.”
There was another pause.
“I don’t expect you all to trust me,” she continued, “Not after what I’ve done. But unless you want to blow the entire base up you’re going to need me to get him out. And I’m going to need you to keep them off my tail once we do get him out.”
The atmosphere in the penthouse was grim as they all listened to Steve’s conversation with Lin. Natasha was keeping her mouth shut, but she didn’t understand why in hell Steve was still on the phone. There was no possible way that they could believe anything that came out of Beifong…
“Natasha,” Steve said, his hand over the phone, “she says to tell you that you were right, about everything. What does she mean?”
Natasha closed her eyes.
“It means that they’re experimenting on him,” she said, “which means there’s a possibility she’s spooked or disgusted enough to have started using her brain.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Far be it from me to make the call, but…it would be worth at least checking up on.”
“Like it or not, it’s the best lead we’ve got so far,” Tony scowled as he plugged in the coordinates of the town Lin had named, “JARVIS is getting nowhere with his hacking.”
The screen pinged, and Tony looked, his eyes narrowing.
“There was an army base outside of there, years ago, but it got shut down in the eighties. Or at least, that’s what the official reports say…” he trialed off, his expression calculating.
“Ask her if there’s any way she can meet us fifteen miles west of the town within the next hour or so,” he said to Steve before turning to Clint, “one of those fancy SHIELD planes can get us there in that time, right?”
Clint nodded. “I’ll get Fury on the line, ask him if we can get one right away.”
“And what if he says no?” Pepper asked, “He didn’t seem particularly amenable to helping you all yesterday.”
Clint and Natasha exchanged a look. “I’ll persuade him.”
But as it turned out, Fury barely batted an eye when giving the authorization, and within the hour the Avengers found themselves touching down in one of SHEILD’s stealth planes on an abandoned road outside of town. They found Lin standing on the side of the road next to an old motorcycle, her expression both determined and uncomfortable. She walked up to meet them.
“Look, before we—“
“Save it,” Tony cut her off, “I don’t need to hear any pathetic explanations. All we care about right now is getting Banner out of there in once piece, and as much as it pains me to say it, you’re the one with the most knowledge around here. So, how do you propose we do this?”
“The men I rode out with are all still drinking in the bar,” she said briskly, “if I’m judging the type right they will be ‘til the crack of dawn. When I ride back with them I can sneak into the cell where Bruce is. I can sense where and when the guards are, take them out as they come. The difficulty will be getting him out. Once I get to his cell, I signal you all, and you attack from above—make it look like you’re trying to break in. In the confusion, I sneak him out around the back. Simple enough?”
The rest of them looked at each other, nodded. “Seems solid enough,” Steve said, “I think that we can cause enough of a ruckus to keep them distracted. Clint can fly the plane in to meet you once you’re out.”
“I’m coming back with you,” Natasha said, glaring at Lin. She wasn’t going to believe her fully until she saw Bruce with her own eyes. “You don’t leave my sight for the entirety of this, understand?”
Lin looked at her warily, but nodded without protest. “Understood. It’d probably be better to have an extra pair of hands anyway.”
Natasha hopped on the back of the stolen motorcycle as Lin drove them back into town. She was thankful that the wind howling against them didn’t leave much room for conversation.
“All right,” Lin said, “It looks like they’re winding down in there. You’re going to have to find someplace to hide in the truck—under the seat or the trunk, probably. Once we’re inside, think you can stick to the shadows long enough for them all to clear out?”
Natasha gave her a withering look. Lin held her hands up in defense. “Just asking!”
She hid in the trunk as the Army men came stumbling out of the bar, and tried to adjust herself to minimize the jostling on the ride back to the base. Once they were there, she waited a good ten minutes before Lin knocked on the outside of the trunk, signaling that she was clear to come out.
“All right, they’ve all stumbled back to their beds,” she whispered, “They’ve got security cameras all over, though, so make sure to avoid those as much as possible.”
“Beifong, I’ve been doing this sneaking around thing a lot longer than you have,” she snapped, “I know how to stay hidden.”
Lin didn’t respond, but retracted the metal casing from her boots and stamped down, feeling, Natasha assumed, for the presence of anyone in the vicinity.
“Coast is clear, at least down to the end of the hallway.”
“All right,” she cocked her gun. “Let’s get our wayward doctor.”
Lin crept through the corridors of the base, feeling out periodically to see where there would be people in their way. It was late enough still that the night shift was on active duty, which meant that they had far fewer guards to deal with. Finally, they approached the corridor that held Bruce. Lin felt out the vibrations down the hallway. There were six guards clustered around Bruce’s cell.
She looked around behind her, but didn’t see Natasha. She held up six fingers, and suddenly she came into view, nodded. The two of them sprang around the corner simultaneously.
Given all the bad blood that had passed between them, Lin and Natasha still fought remarkably well together, moving in tandem as they dispatched of the guards quickly and quietly. Lin metalbent the door of the cell open, and they came in to find Bruce lying on the floor.
The drugs must have started to wear off, for he was cognizant enough to recognize her. He shrank back against the wall, regarding her with suspicion and hostility.
She winced. “We’re here to get you out, Bruce.”
“Like…hell,” he grunted. Talking seemed to be difficult still. “You’re…the one who…put me here.”
Natasha stepped into the light. “Bruce, it’s all right,” she said, “She’s the one who helped us to find you. Tony and the rest are outside, but we wouldn’t be here without her.”
He sagged back against the wall, let out a weak chuckle. “Figures…it’d be you two…”
Lin gave Natasha an uneasy glance, but she didn’t seem to understand what he meant either.
“C’mon, Bruce,” Natasha said, putting his arm over her shoulders and lifting him gently, “we’re getting you out of here. Can you stand?”
He winced and put a hand to his side. “Have to…do this slow…”
She nodded, and turned to Lin. “I signaled the others, so this show should be starting any moment now. Hopefully not too many people will notice we just took out those guards.”
Lin peered up and down the corridor, but it was still deserted, at least for now. After a minute or two, she heard the faint booms overhead of muffled explosions, and knew that the show had begin.
“All right, time to go,” Natasha said, helping Bruce along as carefully as she could. “You’ve got point on this one, Beifong.”
Lin nodded. Between the three of them it was slow going, but she had the element of surprise in feeling out potential threats before they rounded corners, jumping on anyone they encountered from behind and knocking them out before they could raise the alarm. Stark and the others must have been doing more than a decent enough job of distracting the masses, because by the time they’d gotten to the exit they’d encountered relatively few soldiers, and the exit was only guarded by four men. She and Natasha dispatched them, and looked around for an appropriate escape vehicle.
“Okay, Barton’s parked a couple miles out,” Natasha said, “any chance your metalbending allows you to jury-rig one of those ATVs? With all the Starks and Sparks flying over there, we should be able to get to the rendezvous point unnoticed.”
Lin looked behind her to see that Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor were doing a fine job of running Army tanks and planes in circles. She gave a grim smile and revved the engine of the ATV. Natasha and Bruce climbed on behind her, and they sped down the road.
They got about a mile out before Bruce let out a little moan behind her. She turned, and swore heavily as she saw three tanks trundling up behind them, gaining ground fast.
Lin gunned the engine, but it was going at maximum speed, and nothing she could do was going to make it outrun three tanks.
“Couldn’t have picked anything faster, Romanov?” she yelled.
“I was going for stealth, not for speed!” she shouted back.
“Yeah, fat lot of good that does us now--” Lin snapped, but she was cut off by the sound of an explosion off to her right. She flew into the air as the ATV was thrown on its side, and she rolled on the ground before throwing her hands out to come to a stop.
Natasha and Bruce were groaning next to her, Natasha struggling to get Bruce back on his feet. She started as she realized how muffled their voices sounded, and snapped her fingers next to her ear in concern. She could hear that well enough, though, so her hearing couldn’t have been too damaged by the explosion—hadn’t been close enough, or the shots not powerful enough.
Natasha shaded her eyes as she viewing the oncoming tanks, then turned aside as she pressed her hand to her ear.
“Hello?” she shouted, “Anybody copy? We need a little help over here!”
She shouted into the comm several more times before shaking her head. “Must have gotten knocked out by the explosion.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Lin muttered under her breath, “we’re sitting ducks out here.”
Natasha turned to Bruce. “I hate to do this to you Bruce, but now would be a really lovely time for the Other Guy to take up his old tank-crushing habits…”
“No,” Bruce said, his face grey, “feel like shit…after all this…don’t know what he’d do.”
Lin looked at Bruce, and looked back out at the approaching tanks. This was her mess that she’d created, one she’d dragged the three of them into. If she didn’t fix it, and fix it fast, people far better than her were going to die.
She looked at Natasha. “Whatever you do, don’t follow me,” she said tersely. She turned and ran, as fast as she could, up the road to meet the Army.
“Stark!” Natasha shouted again into her comm, “A little help over here!”
But there was still nothing coming in from the other end. She snarled in frustration and looked out to where she could see the oncoming tanks, but she couldn’t tell much of what was happening. She didn’t know what Beifong was thinking trying to take those out on her own, but now when the tanks finally did come it would only be her up against them.
Bruce let out a sudden weak laugh. She turned back to see him collapsed on the ground, leaning up against the wreckage of the ATV.
“She is really, really, really stupid, isn’t she?” he asked, slurring his words slightly.
Natasha turned back to the tanks, where she could now barely make out a tiny point darting back and forth between the tanks, dodging the shots that came her way. “Yes,” she said in exasperation, “Yes, she is.”
“But it’s a noble kind of stupid.” He smiled and closed his eyes. “I like it.”
Natasha knelt down beside him, her alarm increasing. “Stay with me here, Bruce,” she said warningly. “You’re okay, right?”
He laughed again. “I’m fine, Natasha. Nothing that some nice SHIELD-issued first aid and a hell of a lot of sleep won’t cure when we’re out of this.”
“If we ever get out of this,” Natasha said dryly. She could try and shoot her way through the tanks, but that wasn’t really going to do that much good in the face of bazookas. “Not much liking our chances, unless Beifong pulls some sort of miracle move.”
“Yeah,” he said, “yeah, I think there’s something I can do to help in that department.”
Lin ran headlong towards the tanks, knowing that this was either the most brilliant or most idiotic idea she’d ever had in her life. She gave a running leap and flung her righthand cable out towards the tank, wrapping it around the top of the protruding gun. She turned to the side as it turned towards her, and retracted the cable so that she flew to the top of the tank. The top hatch popped open as the soldiers inside came out to meet her, but she flung their guns off the side of the tank and kicked them off to follow. She pushed down with her foot, making sure that she mangled the engines for good measure. As the tank skidded to a stop she gave another running leap, and as she jumped wrapped her cables around the second tank, pulling herself towards her next target.
She had similar success with the second tank, but as she prepared to disable its engines she felt a shot just barely graze the side of her leg. She grunted in pain, and turned to see a soldier from the third tank take aim at her. She bent his gun away from him, and as he bent down to try and grab another she sent her cables whipping towards him. He grabbed the cables and grinned, and as he yanked on the cables she was flung forward, once again airborne as she fell off of the second tank.
When this had happened with the Hulk Lin had had enough time to land safely, but this time she wasn’t so lucky. She heard a sickening crunch as she hit the ground, and let out a little scream at the pain shooting up her right leg. She tried to stand to face the third tank that was turning around towards her, but fell back down as her leg gave out from under her. She swore as she tried to metalbend the gun away from her, but with the pain distracting her there was no way she could be as effective as before. The gun gave a little jerk, but moved back into place as waves of pain even more intense than before began radiating from her leg.
She heard a distant roar behind her and turned in horror to see the Hulk running full throttle towards them. She rolled out of the way as fast as she could to make way for the rampaging green giant, who batted her assailant off of the top of the tank as easily as a fly. Her elaborate metalbending suddenly seemed like child’s play in the face of the Hulk, who merely stuck out his hand to stop the tank in its tracks, before hoisting it up and throwing it, hard, across the desert.
He snarled after the tank as it landed and turned on Lin. She tried to back away, slowly; trembling from what she knew was more than just pain. Here she was, the cause of all his suffering and pain, faced with his anger unleashed…
But the green eyes that regarded her looked merely curious rather than enraged, and there was little malice behind his gesture as he bent down towards her.
“Metal lady hurt,” he grunted, and he scooped her up, ignoring her squawk of surprise as he turned and began to run back in the direction of Natasha.
He was not nearly as gentle as he could have been, and she let out a fresh hiss every time her leg was jostled, but as long as he wasn’t pounding her into a bloody pulp there wasn’t really much she could say.
By the time they returned to where Natasha had been left Tony, Steve, and Thor were there, attracted, Tony said, by the roar of the Hulk. If they were surprised to see the Other Guy carrying an injured Lin in his arms, they didn’t say anything about it.
“We made pretty good work of the bastards,” Tony said, apparently in one of his more upbeat post-battle moods. “Made it at least so that the heavy artillery can’t come after us. Which is good, cos I don’t even think Legolas’s fancy flying would be able to get us out of a full-scale fight like that.”
“Is Barton coming to us?” Lin winced as she tried to re-position herself to lessen the pressure on her leg. She wished the Hulk would put her down.
“Yes,” Steve said, “we called him in once we saw you two coming. Should be here any—”
But his words were drowned out by the roar of the plane as Clint came touching down. They all turned towards the plane, but Lin noticed with some concern that the arm holding her was slowly losing its greenish tint and was shrinking back down rapidly. She tried to get the Hulk’s attention, to put her down before he could no longer support her weight, but he didn’t seem to be paying attention, and the body that had been holding her up collapsed beneath her. She let out a yell as she tumbled on top of a shirtless, pantsless, and now very much normal-sized Bruce.
The others turned at the sound of her shout, and Tony burst out laughing.
“I’ve gotta hand it to you, Beifong,” he said. “When you mess shit up, you mess it up in style.”
Much to Natasha’s displeasure, they discovered that General Ross had left the base very early on in the attack, and according to SHIELD intelligence would be facing very few consequences from his colleagues in the Army. Thus, two days after their escapade to Texas (after they’d all gotten caught up on sleep and gone through their various reprimands, commendations, and debriefings with Fury) the entire Avenger Initiative, plus Lin and minus Bruce, descended on the home of Thaddeus Ross in Alexandria. Natasha and Tony had protested vehemently when Lin had requested to come along, but Steve had pointed out that she had more than partially redeemed herself in the rescue of Bruce. Besides, he’d said, having a former employee present to deliver this particular message might drive the point home more to Ross. It was the six of them, then, who stood smiling at the General as he opened his door. Lin had insisted on it being a very early morning trip, muttering something about poetic justice.
He scowled as he saw them. “I need another drink,” he muttered, and turned to shut the door behind him. Tony stopped it with his foot.
“Remember me, General?” he said with a grin that was all Stark, “We had a nice little chat, awhile back? There were drinks then too—I’m sure you wouldn’t mind having another one. I even brought some friends with me, made it a party.”
“If it’s a party, why didn’t you invite your green friend?” he growled, “Shouldn’t he be joining in on the fun?”
“Still at the SHIELD medical center,” Natasha said sweetly, “All those drugs and experiments you pumped into him really did a number on his system—even the Other Guy couldn’t fix it right away. And, surprisingly enough, you’re the last person he wants to see right now.”
He snorted and turned his gaze on Lin, smirking as he eyed her cast and crutches. “So…even the infamous metalbender can’t hold her own against the might of the armed forces.”
Lin raised her eyebrows. “I’ve got a couple of tank drivers out in southeast Texas who would care to disagree.”
He glared at her. “You’re finished, I hope you realize that. You hear me? Done. There’s no way in hell you’ll ever be able to find work again in the police force, the Army, anything. What you did goes well beyond insubordination. Treason, some would call it.”
Lin gave him a cold smile. “Somehow, right now that’s really the last thing I’m concerned about, General. I said it the first day I met you: I’m hardly a hero. And I didn’t sign up for this detail for torture and playing God. So I can guarantee you—you don’t do what these guys tell you, you’ll have me to answer to as well. And that’s an added threat I don’t really think you want on your plate.”
He eyed Thor holding Mjolnir loosely, Barton with his bow in his hand, and Steve, the only one of them who had decided to come decked out in full uniform. Natasha noted with satisfaction the fear that started to grow behind Ross’s eyes.
“What do you want from me?” he finally asked.
“Retirement,” Steve said, “a nice, quiet, early retirement. With the promise that whoever follows in your footsteps will stop trying to meddle in Dr. Banner’s affairs—or, for that matter, any affairs concerning the super-soldier serum, SHIELD, or the Avengers Initiative.”
Ross shook his head. “That’s not how it works, Captain. You can bully me into retirement, but there’s no way in hell I’m telling my successors how to run the show. What the hell would I tell them, anyway? I don’t think you want it being spread around that the Avengers are threatening distinguished members of the military.”
“These aren’t threats, Captain,” Natasha said, “These are promises.”
“And you can tell them this,” Tony put in, “Tell them that we really don’t like it when people hurt our friends. Tell them that Dr. Banner can be trusted to handle his own life. Remind them of the little mess we made at the Texas base, and tell them that was us playing nice. Tell them that they seriously, really don’t want to be around when we decide to avenge one of our own.” he smiled again at Ross. “Simple enough, General?”
He gave them all a long look, the fear very evident. It was all Natasha could do to keep from smiling. She would never pretend that she didn’t enjoy intimidating people, and seeing this particular man quake under the glare of her companions brought her a world of joy.
“C’mon,” she muttered to Tony as they walked down the porch steps and out into the sunlight, “are you sure one of us can’t just lay him to the ground? Are you sure I can’t, right now?”
“Now, now, Agent Romanov,” he said loudly, “I’d expect a bit more restraint, coming from you of all people!” he lowered his voice. “Don’t worry. Pepper’s siccing our lawyers on him with a hundred different civil suits. Trespassing, willful tampering with government documents …he’s going to have so many legal headaches he’ll have wished we kicked his head in.”
She suppressed a grin. Someday, someday in the very near future, she could get used to the idea of being on friendly terms with Tony Stark. Or at least, as friendly as she could ever manage to get with a genius billionaire playboy.
Lin cleared her throat softly from behind Natasha. She turned.
“So…speaking of promises,” she said. “That one you made to me, back in my apartment…your best shot would kind of be now. I’m not winning any fights in this state.”
Natasha snorted. “Don’t tempt me here, Beifong.”
She’d meant it when she told Steve that under no circumstances would she allow Lin back on the team at this point, or at any point. She’d burned her bridges well, bridges that had only been a lie in the first place. Natasha’s faith in this team had been so precarious to begin with, her faith in its members not something to be developed rapidly or lightly. And yes, Lin had grown into a friend by the end—but that made the betrayal all the worse. Lin had shattered her trust, had practically shattered the entire team, period. And that was not something she was going to forgive easily, if ever.
But…she had delivered where it counted, in the end. And Natasha was hardly one who could hold someone’s past mistakes against them, at least in the grand scheme of things.
“You’re a good fighter, Lin,” she said finally, “and a good person, if I’m really in a mood to dish out compliments. I’m not going to waste that. Just..make sure you don’t waste it either, all right?”
She gave Lin one final nod, before she turned and got into the car with Clint.
Lin took down the framed map of Manhattan and placed it gently on the top of a box, looking around the now-bare walls of her apartment only a little wistfully. She had never really counted it as home–had spent far more time out of it than in it, truthfully—but leaving it meant leaving New York, and that had been her home. And perhaps it was time, but she still wasn’t quite reconciled to that fact yet.
She heard the knock on the door and sighed. It had cost nearly all of her pride to ask her ex-boyfriend to come over and help her with the move, but with her broken leg she really couldn’t do it on her own, and, like it or not, there were few people left in the five boroughs who she felt she could trust. Still, she steeled herself as she opened the door.
“Tenzin, I told you not to show up until one-thirty—“ she stopped as she saw it was not Tenzin but Bruce standing in the doorway. “Oh.”
“You couldn’t tell it was me?” he asked.
“You try sensing vibrations on a broken leg,” she replied, “it’s a delicate process.”
“Point taken,” he looked around, almost shyly. “Um…may I come in?”
“Oh…yes, of course. Please, sit down,” she moved out of the way to allow him to enter the living room. He took a seat on the couch.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked. “Most of it’s packed away, but I’ve got some rooibos still out on the counter…”
“Yes, please,” he said. “That sounds lovely, actually, I haven’t had rooibos in ages….”
It was slow and awkward getting the tea ready on her crutches, but it gave her something to do to avoid the strangeness of Bruce Banner sitting in her living room. She didn’t understand why he was here. If she’d had more courage (and mobility), she’d have gone back to Stark Towers to apologize to him personally, but she wasn’t 100% sure that Tony would let her in. And she was trying to slip away from SHIELD as quickly and quietly as possible. Fury had granted her immunity from SHIELD prosecution for her help in getting Bruce back, but she didn’t want to push her luck. Anyway, she had imagined that she’d be on the very bottom on the list of people he would want to see, much less actively seek out.
He rose to take his teacup from the kitchen counter when it was ready, and they both sat down on the couch. Lin tried to think of something, anything to say to punctuate the silence.
“So…SHIELD discharged you?” she asked finally, “Clean bill of health?”
“No lasting damage,” he replied, “the doctors think if I’d been held for longer the combination of the drugs and the prodding could have had some serious effects on my nervous system, but…I wasn’t, so they didn’t. And they think turning into the Other Guy mitigated the worst of it, too.”
“What happened here?” he reached out to brush the bandage against her cheek.
“Spider bite,” she answered with a wry smile. “Nothing I didn’t deserve, really.”
He started to protest at that last bit, but she cut him off.
“Bruce, I—“ she turned to him. His eyes really weren’t that different in this state than they were in his green state, now that she thought about it. Browner, obviously, but—they had that same raw openness that she’d seen in her latest encounter with the Other Guy. She wondered if that had always been there.
“I’ve been a cop my whole life,” she said finally. “Born and bred, when you think about it—even if my mother would tell you otherwise. I’ve spent my entire life working to protect this city, saving it from criminals and chaos. And some higher-ups managed to convince me that the Other Guy belonged in the chaos category. They were wrong, I was wrong, but even if we’d been right, none of that—none of it—excuses what I did to you.”
He looked down.
“I can’t ask you to forgive me,” she finished. “Hell, I don’t expect you to. But I want you to know how sorry I am. For whatever it’s worth. ”
He stared at his hands for a long time.
“Well, I can’t say I’m going to be forgetting about the midnight tranquilizing anytime soon. Or any of the other things I had to face down there,” he said at last, “but—you came back for me. You came back to get me out of there, and I’m not going to forget that, either.
“And hey,” he continued, turning back up to meet her gaze, “the Other Guy—the Other Guy didn’t squash you on first sight, back there with the tanks. Even saved your life, or so Tony tells me. And, whatever our differences—the Other Guy’s usually a pretty good judge of character.”
She laughed, shaking her head a little. No, he wasn’t going to be forgiving her anytime soon, but—there was that openness. A willingness to reevaluate, someday. And that was more than she could possibly have asked for.
“So, what happens now?” he asked, gesturing around her half-packed living room. “All this—looks like you’re not aiming to stick around. Fury wouldn’t let you back into SHIELD?”
“He said it was up to you guys, the Avengers,” Lin replied, “And…I’m not going to ask you all. Steve might be quick to forgive, to trust me again, and maybe Thor would too. But the rest—I’m not going to ask that of them. Natasha and Tony especially. They’ve been betrayed by enough people in their lives already. They don’t need one of them sticking around.”
Bruce nodded. “And I’m guessing you’re not exactly going to be welcomed back onto the force with open arms?”
Lin snorted. “Over the Commissioner’s dead body. No, I’ve got no shortage of enemies here now. I think whatever comes next, it’s going to have to be out of the city. I don’t want to spend the next year or two looking over my shoulder the whole time.”
“Any idea where you’ll go?”
“Not yet,” she replied, “I’ve got a family friend out in California who’s got a business going for herself, could probably help me out with some stuff, but I don’t know if that’s quite what I want right now. I don’t even know if I want to stay in the country. But—we’ll see. It might be good to flee the nest for a little while. And I’ve still got my metalbending. I can still help people. I’m just going to have to think of more creative ways to do it.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about creative uses of metalbending,” Bruce said, “but I do know a thing or two about learning to help people in ways you weren’t originally taught. And the best places in the world to do it. I could give you a pointer or two. That is, if you’d want tips— one military runaway to another.”
“I’d like that,” she said, “I’d like that very much.”
After the he’d tried it for the first time, Tony had tried to declare shawarma the official post-battle food of the Avengers, but Clint and Natasha had had their own post-mission culinary traditions established far before the rest of them had come along, and they weren’t going to give that up just for some meat wrapped in pita. Besides, it had been a long time since they’d been able to spend any real time together, just the two of them. She’d never admit it, but Natasha missed him.
“You know, this is a lot less enjoyable back in the States,” Clint reflected as he munched on a double cheeseburger, “half the fun of getting Wendy’s abroad is that you have to hunt for one—it’s not like McDonald’s where you see one around every corner of the world.”
“Yes, but then it involves border-crossing and unauthorized use of SHIELD vehicles, more often than not,” Natasha countered. “This is simpler, and cuts out a few hours of hunger.”
“You’re no fun,” Clint grumbled, “but at least you’ve stopped lecturing me on the evils of fast food.”
“Well, then I’d be a hypocrite, and you know how I hate those,” she smiled sweetly at him as she helped herself to his fries. She knew that no one in the world would expect the Black Widow to enjoy Wendy’s, but it was her way of indulging Clint—he once joked that if she put her hair into pigtails she could be their Russian sister-mascot. And it always somehow reminded her of that early mission back in Chicago when he’d ordered greasy take-out night after night and dragged her to that dive bar with the picked eggs.
Besides, however processed they might be, she couldn’t deny that the fries really were delicious.
“So,” he asked, “Lin’s gone?”
“Lin’s gone,” she replied, “Bruce told me he stopped by her apartment to talk to her, and she was clearing out. She told him she wasn’t going to even try to come back to us. Smart move.”
“He went by her place?” Clint whistled, “He’s better than either of us. He can mask it behind those stupid YouTube videos all he wants, but he’s far better than at least half of us.”
“That’s certainly one way of putting it.”
“So,” he eyed her carefully, “are you…more okay with him now? After all of this?”
She sighed. If anyone but Clint had asked her that question, they’d have gotten nothing more than steely silence. But…this was Clint. Clint, who at this point knew her better than anyone.
“Yeah,” she said, “Yeah, I’m more okay with him. It’s…easier, now, reconciling him and the Other Guy. I can trust them both. And you were right—that thing you said about making do with what you’ve got. He does it better than most.”
“No kidding,” Clint said. “So…think you’d consider taking Stark up on his offer now?”
“Let’s not go jumping to conclusions…”
“Come on, Nat,” Clint said, “You like them all well enough. You steal Stark’s booze anyway, you wouldn’t have to commute, and Pepper wouldn’t have to be the only woman stuck in the superhero frat house. I know how important the independence thing is to you, but…Stark’s good about letting people alone, when they want it. And the rest are too. Besides, it would be easier for…other things, too,” he looked at her slyly.
She threw a French fry at him.
“God, Barton, I think that’s the most obvious come-on you’ve ever tried,” she said, “and that includes Buenos Aires.”
“Just saying, Natasha!” He held his hands up to deflect the fry, grinning. “Not saying anything else.”
For all the times Clint had tried to gently bring up the idea of her moving into the Tower, he had never made it about them. It was always about her own well-being, or that of the team, but never about them, because the minute anything became about them was the minute the whole thing stopped working. And he understood that. It was one of the things she loved about him.
“I’m not going to say yes right away, Clint,” she said finally, “but I won’t be saying no, either. And about the other—“
“Is this is a steamy romantic date, or can anyone join in?” Tony shoved Clint into the corner of the booth as he slid in, banging his tray down onto the table.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “What happened to shawarma?”
“We missed our stone-cold assassins, and Thor still somehow hasn’t been introduced to old-fashioned American fast food,” he said as he pointed to Steve, Thor, and Bruce in line behind the counter. “Figured it was time to change that.”
The other three joined them, and soon all six were squeezed into a booth meant for four—no mean feat considering the size of Steve and Thor.
“These are delicious hamburgers,” Thor declared upon trying his burger. “Not as substantive as others I have had, but enticing all the same.”
“So,” Tony turned to Natasha, “You thought anymore about spending your nights in Stark Towers as well as your days? I’ve got a floor plan all reserved for you, it’s got more space to hold weapons than any crappy quarters you’ve got at SHIELD…”
“Come on, Tony, let it go,” Bruce said, “Natasha’s a big girl, she can make her own decisions. Which…also means that she can tell you that herself,” he finished, looking at Natasha sheepishly. She winked.
“But seriously,” Tony ignored Bruce as he pointed his cheeseburger at Natasha, “You’re not telling me it’d be more fun to live with your espionage lover-hawk? Midnight trysts in the vents?”
“You are a pig,” Bruce said calmly as he picked at his salad, “God forbid any of us ever actually land a date, how are we supposed to bring them around to meet you?”
“Offended!” Tony exclaimed, “Mortally, deeply offended. I’m perfectly presentable in polite company—you all are just neither polite nor company.”
“I’d like to think I’m very polite,” Steve put in.
Clint snorted. “I’ve got a couple of Mario-Kart memories that reflect very differently…”
Natasha shook her head as she looked around at the five of them, wondering at the various ways they had wormed themselves into her life. No, she wasn’t going to be moving in anytime soon. But the possibility no longer seemed to be an if but a when. She wasn’t ready yet, but she might be, someday. She could get used to the thought of living with these people who had become her friends. And somehow, the thought of that left her feeling happier than she had felt in years.
Though Lin’s mother still lived in the city, she didn’t see her much anymore these days—she called periodically and visited occasionally, but even the phone conversations had stopped once she’d gone undercover. It wasn’t that Lin deliberately avoided her—they were a lot more alike than she gave credit for, and they got along quite well as long as they avoided the topic of her work with the NYPD. But Lin’s job had increasingly become her life these past few years, and her mother made it clear she didn’t approve of her job.
Still, her mother was her family, and she deserved to know what had been happening in Lin’s life. And Lin knew she would miss her when she finally left the city for good.
They went out to a teashop in Midtown, one Lin frequented for special occassions. They talked easily of light things and family gossip, before Toph Beifong finally put her teacup down and gave Lin a look she recognized all too well.
“Don’t get me wrong, Lin, this is lovely, but I can tell there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“What? I can’t take my own mother out to tea?”
“I don’t hear from you for two months, and suddenly your name’s all over the news, right next to Iron Man and Captain America himself, then four days later you show up on my doorstep with a broken leg and promises of the fanciest tea in the city,” Toph leaned over towards her daughter. “What did you do, Lin—did you finally murder Pema or something?”
Lin sighed. “No, Ma, I didn’t murder Pema—I’m perfectly happy for her and Tenzin, you know that.”
“Right,” Toph said sardonically. “That’s why you spent their entire wedding sulking at the bar with Kya.”
“Kya was sulking?” Lin didn’t remember much about that night.
“Something about her two baby brothers both getting married before her,” Toph shrugged. “Not that it’s something she should be worrying about—if she actually paid attention to things, she’d notice that boy in California that’s been following her around for ages.”
Lin shook her head. No, she didn’t think she’d be going out to stay with Kya. She was sweet, and always meant well, but–well, there was a reason she had always gotten along with Tenzin best.
“So, spit it out,” Toph prodded, “what’s the reason for you suddenly traipsing around the country with Tony Stark?”
“Well, I, um…” How to even put this story into a succinct sentence?
“I joined the Avengers on an undercover mission for the Police Commissioner. Then I double-crossed them, double-crossed the Army, broke the Hulk out of prison, and quit the force.”
Toph’s face remained expressionless as Lin told the story in full, her corners of her mouth twitching as she sipped her tea. Then, as soon as Lin finished, she burst out laughing.
“My own daughter, breaking people out of jail,” she said, “and you quitting the force! You’re becoming a regular outlaw, my little badger…”
“Very funny,” Lin said, “I just…they finally tipped me over the edge. I saw that I could be doing more good outside the law than within it.”
“Well, well,” Toph leaned back. “I won’t say I told you so…”
“Then don’t, Ma,” she groaned, exasperated. This was exactly why she had been so dreading this conversation…
“No, Lin, hear me out, really,” Toph protested, “I won’t say I told you so because there’s no point. I never liked that you went to work for them, that you had to hide your metalbending. But…that doesn’t mean you didn’t do some good, while you were there. Maybe not as much good as you could have done elsewhere, but…you had your own path to forge. And you’re as stubborn as I am,” she chuckled, “I always knew nothing I said was ever going to stop you.”
Lin blinked. Those were not the words she had been expecting to hear, not by a longshot.
“So—what are you going to do now?”
“People keep asking me that,” Lin said ruefully, “I don’t know. Leave the States, probably, at least for awhile. I know I want to help people, and I’ve got some ideas as to where. I just…still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. Or how I’m going to do it.”
“I didn’t know, either,” Toph said simply, “none of us did, when we came here. It was different, and hard and strange. But we made our own way. And you will, too. You’re a Beifong, Lin—we’ve got a long history of taking care of ourselves, making things our own way. I know you’ll figure it out.”
Lin could have kissed her, right then, if the table hadn’t been in the way.
“If you’re going to go abroad, start with your uncle Zuko, okay?” Toph said, “You know he’s moved back to Tokyo for retirement. I’m sure he’d love to see you, and he knows more than enough people who could use help of the bending variety—not just there but all over.”
Lin nodded. “It’d be good to see him again.”
“It’s just…odd,” she said finally, “New York’s been my home for almost my entire life. And it’ll be good to start something new, just…it’s odd to think I might not come back.”
“I’m not too worried,” Toph said dryly. “Remember when you went off to Rutgers, said you were never moving back home? You’re like Sokka’s boomerang, Badgerlin. You’ll come back someday.”